Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Observer Mode

Observing is one of the hardest things for me to do during an election year.

If anything gets me into my analytical, judgmental, critical, left-hemisphere mind, it's politics. I've decided I'm really not mature enough to watch debates.

Or newscasts.

Or commercials.

Or even yard signs, really.

During a previous election in my lifetime, candidates couldn't even get through a sentence without me shaking my fist at the television set and yelling about how just how wrong, wrong! WRONG!! they were. Of course, the only thing listening to me back then was my cat. And he just ran out of the room.

So, I have gotten better. Cause, isn't the first step to admit you have a problem?

So anyway, here's the taiji twist to all of this. When I started practicing taiji, I enjoyed the movements, was able to relax my body, felt good and energized afterward. But something was missing.

My mind (yi) really was still focusing on where my foot was being placed, what the application of the movement was, whether my posture was correct. I was working on becoming relaxed, but not collapsed - sung is the Chinese term for relaxed in the body and mind, with structure to the body. These are all fine focus points when learning the form and practicing. But, again, I got to a point where I really felt something was missing.

In fact, at the time, I thought to myself, is this it? Is this all I'm going to get out of taiji? I mean, it's nice and all, but so is knitting. (And really it is, especially with all those new funky yarns! Have you seen them? Well, that's another post...)

So I was doing some reading on the brain, and I realized that we have two lovely hemispheres that sit inside our heads. The left hemisphere, simplifying things, is our analytical hemisphere that gives structure to our lives. It helps us remember deadlines, appointments, that we shouldn't drink turpentine - you know, important stuff.

But we in the Western world have a love affair with the left hemisphere. We, in general, admire people who are researchers, engineers, doctors, lawyers, people who are seemingly - using our analytical left hemisphere - better than others. We idolize gifted people - even at an early age. We separate the gifted from the mainstream in classrooms. And we really don't have patience for those who are not "thinkers."

The right hemisphere, on the other hand, allows us to become observers of everything - without analyzing, without judging or criticizing, without saying something is better, worse, more, less, right, wrong. The right hemisphere allows us to observe that everything...just is. And that doesn't get you a high paying job in this country.

But after reading this it really hit me. My taiji practice was! I was so busy analyzing what I was doing correctly and incorrectly that I hadn't allowed myself to enter into my right hemisphere and just observe. Just feel, without analyzing!

For months and months, I practiced without thinking. When a thought would come in, I would acknowledge it and let it go. It was difficult to stop criticising my form - I was so used to analyzing everything! Just being in the form took practice. Lots of practice.

But I found that once I released critical thinking, and gave my right hemisphere equal time, my body really began to respond. Not only in a martial sense - I was much more relaxed and grounded, my stances were stronger, my ability to respond to an opponent was faster (because I didn't take time to think about it) and more accurate - but I tested my blood pressure, which lowered. I tested my pulse, which, over time, went from (at rest) 72 bpm to 53 bpm. My breathing was much slower and deeper.

I also know that when even one bodily process, like breathing, stabilizes, it allows other processes to shift as well. Digestion, cardiovascular, lymphatic, endocrine. This is the reason Taiji is not just a martial art. The whole body responds when we make these shifts.

But the most wonderful thing happened that I didn't expect. This whole right-brain thing filtered into the rest of my life. My need to point out wrongs, innacuracies, hypocracies - whether it was a politician's, my own, a family member's, or friends - became much less important. What grew in it's place was an observation: I can let

And when that happens, I feel much more at ease. And so do others around me.

So, no, I haven't gotten to the point where I can watch endless commercials about candidates. I still have a hard time watching debates.

Instead, I just get into that observer mode and play taiji.

And my cat lays on the floor and watches.

Tao Te Ching
Translated by Stephen Mitchell
When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

Therefore, {one} acts
without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn't possess,
acts but doesn't expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


The symbol of Tai Ji (you can see the image to the left, under the poem by Ts'ai-ken T'an) is a symbol almost everyone knows, but most just call it the "Yin Yang" symbol. And that is what it represents. Yin and Yang.

What is so cool about this theory is how it really represents a duality in life. Both yin and yang exist. In everything. At all times. Kind of like electron particles behaving like waves. Duality.

Which totally makes sense to me, because I've never truly felt black and white about anything. (Which is probably why my gall bladder keeps acting up. It's supposed to the the main organ involved in decision making. Sigh.)

So you may know that Yang represents the sun, heaven, active, bright. Yin represents the moon, earth, rest, shade. And when I ask anyone around here to quantify those qualities - ask them which are good qualities, which would they have in their lives - they all point to the yang qualities. (Except for moms with newborns. They're always lured by the word "rest.")

So I'm not sure what this means. Is it because our culture (I'm speaking of American culture) that we vibrate to yang qualities? Remember when people used to say "active"? It's not good enough for us, we have to be "pro-active." We've got to be plugged in to something - computer, music, cell phone, gameboys, television, i-whatevers, cube-thingies, x-baggies. Our kids are even trained at a young, young age to think fast, move (in their games, anyway) fast, eat fast.

I read an article by a Buddhist monk who reminisced about a bell that rang three times a day in his village. Every time the bell rang, everyone in the village stopped. They just stopped and became aware.

For several minutes they held that space, filling it with compassion and love. And soon, grounded again, they resumed their day.

Wow. What an incredible thing that must have been. A whole village stopping to just be. Can you imagine the power of that? That would just be the coolest thing.

So, tonight I'm going to try it with my family and then I'm off to teach class and I'm going to try it there, too.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Hey! You try it too. Freak people out at work or in a classroom or in a grocery store: bring in a bell, ring it and then just stand there smiling, appreciating life.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

What's the point?

Sometimes life becomes so routine that it seems pointless. We wake up in the morning and do precisely what we did yesterday morning with just a few variations on the theme - like making a turkey sandwich for lunch instead of marinated, grilled tofu on Italian bread (along with some grilled veggies - it really does make a good sandwich). We do our morning thing and for many of us it's off to whatever work we do to pay for our shelter, food and clothing. We come home and do the same thing we did the previous Tuesday evening. Or Wednesday evening, which ever you happened to be living at the time you are reading this.

Why, for instance, do I create designs? (I'm a graphic designer by trade) I know what the end purpose is going to be. The bottom line is that my design should entice someone, somewhere to spend money.

That's it.

"Really? That's it?" I ask myself.

"Pretty much," comes the answer.

And then I feel this chasm deep, deep within open up...somewhere inside. I feel a strange sensation for just a moment.

My soul has left.

"Really?" I ask again a little more quietly.

No answer.

So when I'm feeling as though nothing I am doing really is beneficial to anything or anyone I tend to feel separate. Alone. Unconnected to anything or anyone in many ways.

And what I have to get back is connection.

That's where my taiji practice comes in. It reminds me that even though I'm judging my life to be worthless, I may not be privy to the bigger picture.

And today a friend emailed a quote to me that reminded me that I do not have the power to see everything:

Take care of yourself — you never know when the world will need you.
-Rabbi Hillel

One of the first practices I do when I'm feeling disconnected is an exercise from Rick Barrett's "Taijiquan: Through the Western Gate". If you don't have it and you're a taiji player, get it. It's good.

"1. The exercise is best done while standing with your feet at hip-width, knees unlocked, body relaxed and arms hanging at the side. Notice how your hands feel. Take your time. This establishes a benchmark.
2. Now bring your awareness to the fingers of one hand for thirty to sixty seconds. You want to actually feel your fingers, not just think about them. Sometimes it helps to move the fingers of one hand slightly. Notice the sensations in the fingers of this hand. Expand your awareness to the space around your hands."

Barrett goes on to say that focusing your conciousness leads your qi, and qi leads blood flow and circulation. You may feel sensations in your palms when you do this practice - tingling, fullness, pulsing - one of my students described it as humming.

Whenever I practice this exercise, I become aware of the "Qi Network". Qi is part of everything. Qi is energy and if something absorbs and emits energy - whether it's a rock sitting in the sun or me standing feeling my palms - it's got qi.

As soon as I connect in, I know I'm not alone. I know that my purpose may not be defined in the job that I do currently. I become aware that I am part of a network that depends on my stability and strength because my connection to the network allows others to connect. My breaking the connection doesn't just affect me.

In other words, my choosing to feel worthless in my life will directly affect the relationship I have with husband, my children and other people who have to deal with me.

Who knows, maybe a change in jobs is what I need. But I won't be able to make any coherent changes if I'm disconnected and depressed.

I was participating in a conference workshop led by Rick Barrett and Nina (Sugawara) Deerfield a few years ago that really put everything into perspective. The workshop led us through exercises that allowed us to enter into what they labeled "energetic coherence". One of the things it did was it allowed me to let go of my ego-based, critical, judgmental left brain hemisphere, and enter into my observer, peaceful, utopian right brain. Doing this allowed me to feel (not think) and sense people around me. So instead of Mary, (she has blond hair and an obnoxious voice) and Tony (he's so much better than I am at jump kicks) the people around me just were. Nothing more. Nothing less.

There were about 20 or so people. I felt each and every one of them. I didn't think about them. I felt them. Their presence, their energy. And all of a sudden an image came to my mind. It was fabric just billowing. It looked similar to the way a large body of water does when wind blows over it. And the fabric was all of us connected. The amazing thing was that there were areas in the fabric that were frayed, fraying, or mighty thin. While other areas were thick, strong, supportive. And I knew that because we were all connected, the fraying would affect us all. And because we were all connected, the supportive areas would help hold us all.

I want to be that strong, supportive area.

Even when the job I do every day may not seem important -even to me.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sung: It's not just for former singers

Hmmm...think about how many times you've been looking forward to just collapsing on the couch with a good movie and a glass of your favorite sippin' juice.

Body is nice and comfy laying there. Sippin' juice is cool - or warm, you know, depending on what you like. Muscles finally able to relax after a long week of working or studying...ahhh...

But what's this?? What do my spidey senses pick up? Outwardly the body isn't doing anything, it's true, but something on the radar is being picked up. An unholy buzz. We look deeper to find it...

A lot of times, even though we think we're relaxed on the couch, our brain continues to analyze... produce thoughts, ideas and opinions. It continues to think critically, pass judgment. The brain is not disconnected from the rest of the body. When the brain is working on all of these ideas, it's also sending out messages for the body to respond. So when something you are watching on television invites you to become involved emotionally, your whole body gets involved.

And it's anything BUT relaxed. The brain sends a message to the adrenals to move out some epinephrine into the system to take care of the incoming stress that is being perceived. The heart rate also increases along with blood pressure. Your organs also respond by slowing down to conserve energy for fighting the perceived stress. Which, in turn, causes gas, diarrhea, or possibly constipation. Maybe a hemorrhoid or two?

Never realized how dangerous laying on a couch could be, huh?

It'll kill you.

Okay, maybe not. What will kill you over time, or at least play a negative role on your longterm health, is stress. And we have to understand the real definition of relaxation.

It isn't collapsing on a couch for an evening, trails of the weeks antics leading your around and around in your mind.

In taiji the word is "sung" (also "song") and it means relaxed, but in a much deeper sense that we in the western world have misplaced somewhere. Sung is a relaxed body, but a body that also has structure. Sung is a relaxed spirit open to its surroundings, but not relying on them. The spirit is even: not overjoyed, not depressed. Sung is a relaxed mind: clear of thoughts that create drama - like a political election or a topic like abortion. When you are sung, these things just are. Not right or wrong. Not good or bad. Not evil or saintly. They just are.

In a sung place it is quiet. It is even. It just is.

And you create sung - whether it starts in a dim room by yourself for three minutes every day, just allowing your mind, body and spirit to be; or when it is during a heated confrontation with a co-worker who you struggle to understand.

With your mind, spirit and body not reacting - it learns to respond...from a place of compassion, love and connection.

Next time you feel exhausted and want to lie on the couch - go ahead. But remember the exhaustion extends to your spirit, your mind and your body. Give them all a break. Breathe in. Breathe out. Follow your breath as it expands and releases your belly. Let your thoughts dissolve and keep following your breath with your mind. Allow yourself to release your anxious spirit and tense body.

Become sung.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

I'll never forget the first tai chi class I checked out. We had just moved to Columbus, Ohio and my husband was kinda getting on me for not finding a local sensei to keep up with my karate.

I was also pregnant with my first child.

And emotional.

And not always patient.

Or nice.

Which is why my husband wanted me to leave and go to karate class.

His eyes pleaded with me: "A little break from your mood swings...please?" they pined, hoping that I was going to drop the newspaper I was currently looking at and check out the yellow pages for local dojos.

I couldn't really picture myself doing a round house kick with mother earth sticking out of my uniform. It also didn't seem natural for me to spar with a young fetus growing inside me. It just felt...wrong somehow. Like when I go into a girls clothing store and see skimpy, low cut tops for 8-year-olds. It just feels...wrong.

So, karate...didn't feel natural.

I sat there with the newspaper, avoiding my husband's longing stare when a little article grabbed my attention. It was just a simple listing for a tai chi class. I tore it out and showed it to my husband.

He sighed in relief.

In retrospect, I think at that point, he would have sighed in relief if I had shown him an ad for wrestling boar goats.

Anyway, I don't actually remember the class. I just remember the feeling I had afterward: I was home.

Just watching tai chi dissolved my tension. It created space where I didn't see any before. There was more of an area to breathe into. I was mesmerized by the class as they flowed in and out of one movement to the next. I didn't know where one posture began or ended and I liked that. That felt right. There was no beginning or end. There just...was.

And I was home.

And my husband was happy, too.