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Chinese literature conflict creativity death happiness health T'ai chi Zen philosophy

The incredible lightness of inefficiency!

Happiness of the fish by Chiang Yee

The Happiness of the Fish by Chiang Yee

While emptying an attic closet yesterday—the same one where we found our dead cat Iris back in March—I discovered another box of books on Chinese philosophy, culture, and art that my husband acquired over the years. He has drifted away from the study, but I now find such stuff mesmerizing! It helps explain the pull, influence, and joy I’ve discovered in T’ai chi and good health.

Now that there are only 26 more days until we leave, life seems very peaceful. You may think we are working round the clock to get ready. Wrong! We do whatever we want.

My morning routine is sacred, of course, then I spend a few hours packing, then a few hours sewing, an hour with Honey Girl in our evening walk, a couple hours watching a  favorite series (right now it’s Babylon Berlin, after we watched all of the wonderful How to Get Away with Murder).  Later at night, I enjoy reading the poetry of Yuan Chi, philosophy by Gaston Bachelard and Joseph Campbell, Gish Jen’s Girl at the Baggage Claim, and Subhadramati’s Not About Being Good, among other books. Piles of books line the rooms. That does not bother us a bit. They’re like friends, ready to offer an encouraging thought or insight, as we navigate this time of change.

Late at night, sometimes I just sit in the sunroom with a window ajar, listening to the night and gazing upon the tree-fringed dark sky. Terribly inefficient! Or terribly wise?

Yesterday was June first! So exciting to turn the page on our last month before the move! Yet instead of launching into a frenzy of work or anxiety about moving, I spent hours poring over Chinese Calligraphy by Chiang Yee (1938) and Change by Hellmut Wilhelm (1960). I love how Chinese philosophy makes no sense, at first, until it does…

Try this mental exercise. First consider the concepts of liveliness, constancy and change, in the quotes below (and the gorgeous image above). Then read the description of how energy manifests itself in T’ai chi practice at the bottom. If you are able to resist the urge to do T’ai chi after all that, I’d be surprised!  Is not T’ai chi an incredible gift to humankind?

 On Liveliness

In Chinese calligraphy, says Mr. Chiang, the main principle of composition is in every case a balance and poise similar to that of a figure standing, walking, dancing, or executing some other lively movement. [Lively movement as seen in The Happiness of the Fish, above, Plate XXI of Chinese Calligraphy.]

‘The beauty of Chinese calligraphy is essentially the beauty of plastic movement, not of designed and motionless shape.’

How such ‘lively movement’ is conveyed by a written character, or by a painting or a piece of sculpture or pottery, is a mystery that we cannot analyse—it is an instinctive coordination of the artist’s mental image and the muscular stroke with which he ‘expresses’ or ‘projects’ that image. It is, at any rate, a very personal faculty, achieved by continuous practice and meditation, by a discipline that is spiritual rather than physical.

-“Foreword” by Sir Herbert Read, in Chiang Yee, Chinese Calligraphy, viii.

On Constancy and Change

Change: that is the unchangeable.

The opposite of change is regression, not cessation of movement.  Change, then, is not simply movement as such, for its opposite is also movement. Change is natural movement rather, development that can only reverse itself by going against nature.

To recognize that man moves and acts, that he grows and develops, this is not deep insight, but to know that this movement and development … are governed by the law of change, from which there is no escape, this has fostered in early Chinese philosophy its gratifying integrity and lucidity.

Change is at work in the great as well as in the small … it can be read in cosmic happenings as well as in the hearts of men. The individual who is conscious of responsibility is on a par with the cosmic forces of heaven and earth.

Since every seed attains development in change, it must also be possible to introduce into its flow a seed planted by man. And since knowledge of the laws of change teaches the right way of planting such a seed, a highly effective influence becomes possible. … the closer to the time of planting, the stronger the influence. To recognize the moment of its germination is to become the master of the fate of the seed.

The Creative knows through the easy.

The Receptive can do things through the simple.

The stability of change is the counterpart of the human virtue of reliability. One can grasp it, hold on to it, count upon it.

To become aware of what is constant in the flux of nature and life is the first step in abstract thinking.  … Similarly the conception of constancy in change provides the first guarantee of meaningful action.

-Hellmut Wilhelm, Change, 17-23.

On T’ai chi, our daily way to feel calm in the face of death and change

Internal energy is much more powerful than muscle power. Muscle tension impedes the flow of internal energy. While a certain minimum of tension must be used in movement and in holding up the body, any further tension interferes with the greater power of chi.

When faced with a conflict, you know not to meet it head on. Never interfere with your partner’s momentum (whether physical or emotional); let it flow by you or rechannel it. The world you perceive is a reflection of your inner state.

The T’ai chi student begins to understand the role of cycles in nature. The biological feelings of your connection to the environment become stronger than your feeling of isolation. … By identifying with biological life, you become immortal.  … Death is no longer a threat; its force has been neutralized. As part of life, you will never die—only change.

-Bob Klein, Movements of Magic, 53-56.

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Chinese literature conflict creativity death French literature humor loss meditation memory T'ai chi wisdom Zen philosophy

Ripping off the Bandaid, or must moving become existential turmoil? Remember the worry-wort centipede!

b96028bcbc4bdb7ad68f18c15fb5d620 centipede

Now that it is only four weeks til D-day, I have felt touches of that sickness known as nostalgia. It starts with a slight taste of nausea that spreads to the temples with dread and then cloaks the whole body in heavy, dank sadness. I know it well, having lost my mom just three years ago and my dad in 2008.

I hate nostalgia! I hate thinking about the past, wallowing in sorrow for babies grown, marriages sealed, friendships ended. I hate thinking all the time. The Mind, it was revealed to me during the past 18 months since I discovered meditation and T’ai chi, is not necessarily a friend. It does not naturally have any compassion for you. It can attack you, remind you of weakness, and torture you all day long if you let it. Moving your household is an activity that gives Mind free rein, because when you must spend several hours a day poring through cupboards, drawers, and shelves, choosing and tossing vestiges of the past, Mind creeps in easily and emotional turmoil may ensue, believe me.

The conflicting emotions whipped up by the storm yesterday have subsided to mental nagging today. As Peter Ralston points out, “We have a tendency to get caught up in things that don’t serve being ‘in’ or being responsive to the present moment and condition—we become enmeshed in figuring out, being anxious, upset, angry, fearful, reactive and so on.”

His solution is a brilliant series of mind experiments and exercises designed to unify the physical core and the Mind. It does work if you remain calm. Being calm for me requires preparation: doing T’ai chi daily, concentrating on even breathing, and holding a correct spinal alignment at all times. As Ralston writes, “Instead of trying to make those things disappear, we can simply let them be, not feed them energy and attention, and let them float in the base we now call being calm” (Principles of Essential Power, 6). But when you suddenly rediscover a handknit baby blanket, a cute old photo of your kid (whose present self isn’t quite so cute or unproblematic), or even a yellowed bank statement, emotions are prone to fill the idle Mind.

Better to channel that emotional richness into creativity, as Bob Klein, Twyla Tharp and so many other sages have advised. Therein lies our life’s purpose. Creativity for me is writing (a little) and especially sewing. Sewing is a bond to the past and a disciplined way to beautify the present and make people happier, if only for a few minutes now and then. My intentions are kindly, the results are heart-warming, and that is enough for me.

But our world does not promote such simplicity, and it never has, as long as humans live in community and compare our fate to that of others. Faced with our own mortality and limitations, we humans can easily become off-balanced and fall into existential turmoil. French literature testifies to this fact all the time: just think of Victor Hugo’s poem, “The Slope of Reverie,” Jean-Paul Sartre’s works Being and Nothingness or Nausea, and Beckett’s entire absurdly depressing oeuvre.

Why is that? Because most people in the West are dominated by a tyrant named Mind or conscious logical socially-conditioned thought patterns. Mind tries (and often succeeds) to convince us that only Mind can keep us together.  Only worrying holds us upright, gets us out of bed and off to work. Only other people’s opinions of us count. If we stop worrying and trying to measure up to external standards, we will fall apart and turn into mush. That is a powerful lie. But each must realize it in his own time.

Remember the tragic fate of the worry-wort centipede!

The centipede was happy, quite,

Until a toad in fun

Said, “Pray, which leg goes after which?”

This worked his mind to such a pitch,

He lay distracted in a ditch,

Considering how to run.

 

–reproduced in Watts, The Way of Zen, p. 27

 

image reproduced courtesy of Kaneki and a Centipede Plush ||| Tokyo Ghoul Fan Art by verticalforklift on Tumblr

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death French literature nature T'ai chi wisdom

Letting go: on moving, death and the untidy garden

One of the poignant things about moving is letting go of things we once held dear. I’ve been abandoning books right and left (to the bins managed by Better World Books, but still…). Rich has abandoned his garden, once a crowning achievement which fed our family for weeks in the summer. Gazing out on the garden this morning while meditating, I savored its lovely untidiness, which brought up the connection to one of my favorite quotes of all time, by the French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne.

Thought of the day: Letting go is healthy and delightful (even if it feels wrenching at times).

***

Portrait_of_Michel_de_Montaigne,_circa_unknown

“I want death to find me in the garden planting cabbages, but not afraid of her, and even less of my imperfect garden.”

“Je veux que la mort me trouve plantant mes choux, mais nonchalant d’elle, et encore plus de mon jardin imparfait.”

Michel de Montaigne, Essais, 1580

***

Imperfection and letting go are key concepts in Zen philosophy as they are in T’ai chi. As Bob Klein writes, “Many people are drawn to T’ai-chi-Ch’uan because it enables them to let go of their tensions permanently. Without tension, anxiety and worry, life is a lot more enjoyable. … to release this tension, you must go through the nervous system, for it is a nerve, constantly sending its signal to a muscle, which causes that muscle to tense. You are making yourself tense. Tension, therefore, is not released by doing something extra, but by letting go of something you are already doing.”  (Movements of Magic, 16)

***

Did Montaigne know of Zen philosophy?! Or perhaps the Stoics before him? sure seems like there is a connection between East and West deep down …

At any rate, Bon dimanche!

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health humor meditation T'ai chi wisdom

Day Five: when a wall is enough

Hello,

It is now just 35 days til D-day, and anxiety is flitting around the edges of my psyche.

There are so many details that it boggles the mind. (There is so much stuff to move or discard!  There are so many decisions to make! There are deadlines to meet, lodgings to arrange, roads to ponder, strangers to encounter! There are so many unknowns…. argh!!!) It is exhausting even to think of them, on top of all the scary and startling news coming at us from the world which I duly read in today’s papers.

What to do?

Fight back. Discern between urgent, important, and essential, and make time for essential things to be urgent. In other words, instead of launching into anxious detail mode first (real estate agents!  furniture movers! cleaning services! money money money to pay!), I’m sticking with the morning routine.

Why? Because the rigorous morning routine reminds me of my essence. It makes me feel good. And today, my essence feels a little out-of-whack. It is jangling with nerves. So, while doing today’s standing meditation, I deliberately gazed upon a wall instead of looking at the living kaleidoscope going on outside the windows.

(I took a photo of the blue corner to post here, but now the wi-fi connection to my phone is not working! Argh!!!)

I gazed at a corner, where two walls meet. Looking closely at it, and its cool blue hues reflected in the morning light, I realized it is actually a slightly rounded space, not a sharp angle. This reminded me of Bob Klein’s lesson about in-between places in T’ai chi. I’ll copy it for you here. Then I will go and do my silent exercise routine, knowing that the move will happen, one way or another, and that it will be fine (or good enough, anyway).

“Another important lesson of the Form consists of the in-between places–the transitions from one movement to the next in which momentum gives out in one direction and begins in a new direction. Logically, there should be a point at which the body comes to a complete halt. Yet this point is so imperceptible that you could say it does not exist. As the momentum gives out in an arm moving toward its own body, for example, the arm gradually slows down at the very end. As it begins its new direction, it gradually speeds up. Yet this alteration is so subtle that the arm appears to be moving at a constant speed.”

Klein ends this foray into the technical minutiae of T’ai chi with a reminder that our main goal is simply to do the Form!  Despite all aspirations toward perfection, the only rule is “Don’t stop now.” He concludes: “When you are no longer tense and rigid, all you have left is laughter” (Movements of Magic, 8).

Bottom line: Get a grip on your nerves. Exercise and meditate as usual. Do those things which are necessary today, but continue strengthening yourself within. What we do today will make tomorrow easier, but only if we do not exhaust ourselves in doing it.

Good luck! ^_^

 

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children dogs happiness T'ai chi

Why do I do this? (Give trust a chance)

Honey girl eating grass May 6 2018.jpg

I write this blog for those who want to feel better and have a more peaceful life. But I also write this blog for me. It is a record that shows how determined I am to keep feeling good and experiencing less pain in daily life, as time goes by.  I do walk Honey Girl  every day and that helps. But where she can just chomp on some grass to get relief (like she was doing this morning), the various disturbances I feel now and then get stuck deeply in my system. Recreating a peaceful mindset is more of a challenge. Chomping on grass doesn’t work.

This blog reminds me that peace is possible, despite it all. But it is a daily effort.

Let’s take today as a case in point. This morning, I encountered a cluster of alarming icons on my phone screen. (I admit it: as soon as I opened my eyes, I looked at my phone. Bad habit, I know! But I’m just like you. We’re all addicted to those phones.)

Immediately, my stomach flipped and my shoulders tensed up, as I saw that my husband had called twice around dinner time, and my faraway son had called after midnight. Neither had left a message, as is their habit. I never know what that means, but it did not look good. Then I saw some texts. My Chicago-based son (with whom my husband was supposed to be dining last night with my brother and sister-in-law who were in town specifically for that purpose) texted the following message at 12:36am: “Hi, I just received an alarming call from Nick that you and Dad were worried about my whereabouts. If you can, can you give Dad my cell phone number. I forgot the details of his email for dinner reservations tonight and forgot to go. So I assume they were worried. Can you also tell him I’m sorry that I forgot.”

Well, as you can imagine, I immediately texted back to him and in no uncertain terms told him to deal with his own mistake and make his own apologies. Then ensued more texts. YUCK!   Whatever happened to waking up slowly on a peaceful spring morning?

Well, I tried to recapture the moment. I looked out the window, and opened it wide to take in the sight of a pear tree covered with white blossoms, to listen to the songbirds in the trees, and to admire the powerful St Joseph River flowing swiftly by down below. But that sick feeling remained in my gut.  It remained for a couple hours, until after I took Honey Girl for a walk and did my morning routine. In retrospect, it just makes me a little sad. And a little tired. (Actually, very tired.)

Anger management has been an issue with this family. I am a bit worried about witnessing the remnants of Rich’s anger at that son when he gets back later today. (See the book by Mason and Kreger on the bibliography: an essential help for living with hotheads.)

So what can meditation and T’ai chi do for all that emotional turmoil?  Like most people, I exist in a web of relationships. For better or worse, I do not seek to extricate myself from that web or to adopt monastic vows. So I must cope. And it is the coping that brings the joy, because it allows me to spread peace to the ecosystem where I am planted. It is a sad fact, however, that joy is personal. You cannot force others feel it. Nevertheless, it can be yours!

Bob Klein describes the typical person’s nervous system as a dammed-up mountain pass or blocked riverbed. T’ai chi and meditation are tools which allow one to chisel an opening in the stone, and allow the water/spirit/energy to flow through freely.  For daily practitioner of T’ai chi, life can be transformed. As he writes inspiringly, “When you speak or act, the channels have already been opened; you are satisfied with what you have created and now your creative spirit flows through. In other words, after you work on yourself, transform yourself, empty yourself, then you must trust yourself. You must trust that when you act or speak spontaneously, good things will come out.” (Movements of Power, 161).

Let’s give trust a chance.

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meditation social media T'ai chi wisdom Zen philosophy

day five, free at last

Hello on the final day of the five day meditation in the mirror challenge,

This experience has made me realize that I was on the right path before this challenge. Despite whatever anyone else might think, gazing out at nature is more valuable than getting too immersed in the self. Perhaps for those just starting out, it is useful to gaze into a mirror, but after ten months of the morning routine I have found the mirror meditation to be a tiresome and unnecessary addition to my life.

I also find many human interactions tiresome and unnecessary. (Sorry!)  As Bob Klein has noted, “Usual human interactions, centered around issues of self-worth, control and power in a social sense, become bewildering to a person involved in spirit breathing. The purpose and benefit of such interaction becomes unclear when viewed from the perspective of the Body-Mind. This perspective does not include the idea ‘I am better than you because…’ It is a perspective of connecting and unifying rather than overpowering.”  (Movements of Power, 75).

Nevertheless, here are the photos and descriptions as promised on 3/7. The setting: the sunroom of my beautiful historical house which will go on the market this Wednesday, via Cressy & Everett.  The mirror: an antique hand mirror with a long handle inherited from my mom, Mary Somerville (Sept. 7, 1930–March 11, 2015).

The photos are here and I leave you to draw whatever conclusions you choose.

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dogs happiness wisdom Zen philosophy

a dog’s lesson to humans

Hello readers,

Well, it’s been a long week of woe, once again, on the national scene.  We need inspiration to continue healing, protecting truth from attack, and endowing our existence on this planet with some kind of dignity and integrity. Since we cannot control anything but our own actions, let’s start there.

Here are some light-hearted thoughts inspired by last night’s walk with Honey Girl, on how to pay attention and learn to trust yourself, despite what anybody else thinks.

  1. Sniff around for opportunity. As Bob Klein reminds us, “Don’t worry that you’ll fill your brain with information too quickly. We normally use very little of our brains anyway. There’s plenty of empty space in there.”
  2. Don’t be bothered by uncertainty. The fog swirling around the trees behind Honey Girl didn’t stop her from her mission.
  3. Put your head into it.   (metaphorically speaking or quite literally, as dogs do!)
  4. Revel in your newfound discovery, explore it deeply, and make it part of you.  (roll around in it, love that new smell and how it feels!)

The lesson, as Klein beautifully writes, is that “attention is no longer perceived as a threat, as a penetration of your individuality. Through these exercises, you realize that attention is a universal energy like gravity. You no longer protect it as if you had only a little bit of it. You ‘bathe’ in the vast quantity of attention that fills the world. And then you realize a strange truth. That which you coveted, which you hoarded, is all around you. Coveting only serves to disconnect you from what is freely available.” (Klein, Movements of Power, 128).

Do not covet other people’s integrity and happiness.

Sniff around, seek, dig, and find your own reasons to hope. Only you can help this world survive. Do something good–big or small–today.

thanks.

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creativity health humor T'ai chi wisdom

a mysterious yet trusting postcard

Last summer, I received the postcard seen here: a sinuous black-and-white icon symbolizing the lesson, “Don’t be Selfish.” After marveling over its beauty, I puzzled for days over the message, asking myself things like, “What French-speaker do I know who is also learning Thai? Why would someone go to all the trouble to send this card to me, knowing I cannot read it?” and most importantly, “Who would trust me to figure out the answers?!”

When I finally got the card into the hands of a Thai-speaker, who translated the signature as “Jasmine flower,” I thought immediately of a lovely young art student (named Jaz) I met this year. When I wrote to her, she replied, “Finally!!!”

What a gift!  What Jaz gave me is the gift of trust. She trusted me to figure out the mysterious message. She trusted me to do so in my own time. She trusted me and waited patiently, until I did what she had hoped I would do.

Why is trust so hard for us?

As Bob Klein writes in Movements of Magic, “Don’t you trust yourself? Don’t you trust that you are a good human being who, if allowed to do whatever you wished, would do positive and loving things? What lies have you fallen for? Have they frightened you into believing there is a monster within you? It’s not a monster. It’s Body-Mind, your own true self….  the artist within you, the true creator and apprentice of Nature herself.”*

The next time you are dealt a mystery or encounter a challenging situation, try thinking in terms of trust. You are most likely capable of handling it. That is why you received it!

***

Bob Klein, Movements of Magic, p. 18.

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creativity health humor nature social media T'ai chi wisdom Zen philosophy

A confession, an inspiration, and a way to feel better

pecan pie Nov 24 2017.jpg

  1. A confession: I ate one-fourth of this pecan pie yesterday, all by myself! And that was after eating a very large and wonderful dinner!  Pecan pie, made from the family’s secret recipe, is one of my all-time favorite foods. So I enjoyed it and had three lovely big pieces.  And do you know what?  It was good, very very good. 

Since I went right back to my normal morning routine today, I feel great. I have no regrets. How do you feel? Perhaps a little groggy or overwhelmed by all the food, the drink, the sales, the crowds, and the looming craziness of the “holiday season”?  Although we cannot change the noisy chaos and emotional manipulation coming at us from all angles at this time of year, we can liberate ourselves from its grip.

  1. An inspiring thought:

When the mind is quiet

With chattering thoughts at rest,

When the heart is gentle

With selfish thoughts given up,

The spirit will rise and soar.

–from Venerable Shi Wuling, Path to Peace, “November 24”

  1. A pact to feel better. One of the most powerful facets of practicing T’ai chi and studying Zen philosophy is that they lead to greater appreciation of the self and the present moment. Try this exercise and make a pact with yourself today.*

Don’t put yourself down and don’t be angry with yourself, for a full month. See what changes that puts you through. Anger is an emanation of the mind. It is not a direct emanation from creativity (the Body-Mind) but one coming from the fashioned creature (the Mind). When you make a mistake, don’t clench your teeth, frown your face, and tell yourself how stupid you are.

Just laugh a little!  We’re all beginners at this game. And we humans really are quite funny to behold.

***

*I’ve been making and renewing this pact monthly since August 13, 2017. Although I admit to kicking myself on one or two Tuesdays evenings after teaching a particularly challenging graduate seminar this semester, I have caught myself and made myself stop. When it happens, I stop, breathe quietly with eyes shut for a few moments, and shake my head at the sneaky way the Mind works, trying to keep me in its miserable power.

And do you know what? The pact works. Those bad old feelings of struggle, self-hatred, and doubt are gradually ebbing away. Life simply is, and it is good.

For more on this exercise and the philosophy behind it, see Bob Klein, Movements of Power, p. 48.