Escape Duality

A monk asked Tozan, “How can we escape the cold and heat?” Tozan responded, “Why not go where there is no cold and heat?” “Is there such a place?” the monk asked. Tozan commented, “When cold, be thoroughly cold. When hot, be hot through and through.”

What a huge challenge! We cannot always escape our conditions, so how about instead of dividing ourselves from them, we instead become one with them?

One core concept in CBT is “Focus on the present, not plans.” We once again see a motif here of “Be where you are.” We can look at this in many ways, but are we truly separate from the conditions we are involved with? By showing a preference to a condition, we then create a dislike for something else. While that’s not inherently “bad,” it can often lead us to a place of suffering when we begin to worry, like the monk in the koan, about how to avoid things that aren’t happening at this moment.

Breaking Free…for whatever reason.

Most Discordians will refer to the story known as the ‘Original Snub’ which explains a little bit about Eris. In this story, the Olympians assembled at a feast on Mount Olympus (called Limbo Peak by Discordians). They decide not to invite Eris due to Her reputation for causing chaos and strife. When Eris finds this out, She decides to get even with the Olympians by making a golden apple and carving the word ‘kallisti’ (to the prettiest) on its side. She sneaks up to the banquet hall and rolls the apple inside. Once the Olympians see this, they immediately set to fighting each other over who deserves the apple. From this point in the story, the various accounts diverge. Discordians take solace in this story whenever they themselves are snubbed. They also use it as an example of active defiance in the face of unwarranted exclusion. The story begs the question ‘if Eris was so bad, how come it was the rest of the Olympians who caused the commotion?’ Eris can be seen, in this light, as the one who makes you realize the inherent capacity for strife you already have. The ‘Original Snub’ is said to be the foundation myth of Discordianism, if such a thing could be said.

This one is about to get a bit surreal, as it well should be. The actual story revolves around how Goddesses who believed themselves to be archetypes or beauty and grace took to seeing that they only should be the recipients of this gift. Because, even though it is a wedding feast, egos persist.

To tell the total truth, it was Discordianism that led me (your humble and utterly irrelevant author) to Zen thought. While steeped in Rinzai, it’s entirely from the basis of Western culture. The “old stories” often contain a wisdom that is sadly ignored, and simply put…when dealing with unexpected outcomes, we should hardly be surprised.

I could explain Discordianism, but literally all of that information is already available. All you have to do is want to know. Seriously, don’t take it as a joke, even though it is, presented as a religion, presented as a joke.

The real questions come into play when we begin to self-reflect. “How would -I- respond to the nonsense?” I certainly cannot answer for you, and so you (as pope) must answer for yourself. Do we let nonsense rule our lives? How does our ego benefit? Does it? Do I? Who am I?

I do not wish to detract from the experience if you’re a newcomer. By all means, wade through the endless babble and see if you understand. If not, that’s okay, it’s babble. If so, then there’s endless meaning for those who do understand. Consider it Dadaism for the soul.

Best of luck, and when it sticks (as it will) then you’ll be in good company.

Not 2, Not 1

This is the most important teaching: not two, and not one. Our body and mind are not two and not one. If you think your body and mind are two, that is wrong; if you think that they are one, that is also wrong. Our body and mind are both two and one. We usually think that if something is not one, it is more than one; if it is not singular, it is plural. But in actual experience, our life is not only plural, but also singular. Each one of us is both dependent and independent.” – Shunryu Suzuki, ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’

Interconnected relationships can quickly become a very complex matter. There’s a certain level of obviousness to them, while at the same time, it often feels quite illogical to think of them in this manner. “Not 2, Not1.” How can we better apply this perspective?

Western culture in particular highly values the concept of individuality. “Be yourself! Do your thing!” This is good and bad advice. While it’s impossible to be anything other than yourself, it’s also quite impossible to figure our who the “yourself” is that you’re supposed to be.

A lot of yoga teachers, zen teachers, etc. will actually work on speeding up the process of identifying this conundrum. “Just sit there and stop all thoughts,” the instructor may suggest. This proves more than difficult, and if given enough time, soon enough you are thinking about not thinking, which is a new type of thinking but thinking nonetheless. Interestingly, all of these thoughts come from a place of interpretation of prior events, and if you really explore this, you will often find that it’s impossible to think of anything of “yourself” that does not tie to a relationship with something else. If you remember playing basketball, you recall the ball, the other players, your own thoughts, but where is the “yourself?” All of these interactions and memories are how we define “us.”

So, it’s the things that happen “to you?” No, that’s not right either. Let’s assume that we once helped out a friend, and then when we a hand moving a couch, they come over to lend us a hand. Did they do this? Did we? Perhaps it was the relationship itself that did it. “Not 2, Not 1.”

I had a close friend who was lost at sea for 6 days in a very small boat. He discussed on a few occasions how hopeless he felt, and utterly isolated. Upon his return, though, he often claimed that “The only thing I can determine for sure is that life’s most important happenings are every connection we make to one another.” I admire that perspective, but not enough to try to understand it by going out to sea and getting lost.

It may not be possible to remove our emotions from our interactions with others, but we can learn to appreciate them as a part of our own growth. We should understand that it’s all a part of our practice, our growth, our zen. We can benefit greatly from understanding how washing dishes IS the practice. It can be how we ride the elevator, how you go to buy food (or grow it), and it should likely be in every interaction we have with other people. We may still run across troublesome people, but this is where our practice really gets better. A weightlifter who never increased his weights would get no stronger, so let us remind ourselves that difficult interactions are actually for our own growth.

…at the same time, be very cautious to not evaluate our “improvements.” That’s certainly a way to be shown how far we still have to go. Our progress is not important, only our path.

All Potential Answers

Bring the mind into sharp focus and make it alert so that it can immediately intuit truth, which is everywhere. The mind must be emancipated from old habits, prejudices, restrictive thought processes and even ordinary thought itself.” – Bruce Lee, Tao of Jeet Kun Do

The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do.” Cpt. Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean

So often, we find ourselves struggling with not just our thoughts (restrictive or not), but our expectations, our habits, and our own judgements. While doing so is rather comfortable for us, it may directly lead to our own discomforts. Consider someone with major anxiety who drinks coffee all day. The thought may be “I need caffeine to function,” but this may also be leading to waking in the middle of the night, panic attacks, etc. It’s worth considering that perhaps the original statement is actually backwards to reality. Perhaps it’s the caffeine that’s preventing functionality.

That’s all metaphorical, of course. The point being that until we’re willing to really embrace that we don’t -know- all of the answers yet, we cut ourselves off from many solutions that might or might not work for us. In order for us to come to see many options, we need to do as Bruce says above, “Bring the mind into sharp focus…intuit truth.”

The use of ‘truth’ here is a wonderful exploration of both knowledge and wisdom. For instance, knowledge tells me that a coffee table is made of molecules, atoms, quarks, and eventually wave-forms of light. These items are spaced so far apart at the levels that they become visible that I could scientifically show that a coffee table is made of so much “empty space” that it almost doesn’t exist at all.

Wisdom, though, is that if I stub my toe into one of its legs in the dark, it will hurt. This is the “truth” that should really be at the forefront of our minds.

This, though, leads us to many potential solutions if our goal is to avoid stubbing our toes. Anxiety may lead us to insist on always wearing boots in the house and wrapping all of our furniture in foam on the off chance that we might stub our toes. Depression might lead us to ask if it’s even worth getting up if all that we can look forward to is toe-stubbing. Neither of these things are really the only solutions, so it may do us well to really practice no-mindedness and consider our current selves.

Do we need a coffee table? Is it worth possibly stubbing a toe or two? Could we perhaps turn on a light? Maybe we stumble around in the dark too quickly and could be served better by slowing down and being patient.

Again, all a silly metaphorical set of questions that have practically nothing to do with tables at all. What may prove useful is how we view the real problem “I do not like pain.” This can lead us into self-destructive rumination, or it could lead us to explore all of the individual moments that make up our lives…openly, without prejudice, and with our minds in the here and now. Are we currently stubbing a toe? If not, then let us be where we are.

In the end, we should be free to try things that we can hope will help us be where we are enjoying life. If they don’t work, abandon them. Use what is useful. Keep the worthwhile, and build a new present moment, and with enough of these, we build a new and worthwhile world.

Control over Adrenal Response

I was reading an article today about a neuroscientist who took up pilates, to reduce stress responses. His reasoning was based upon a study regarding nodes in the cerebral cortex and how they interact with the internal organs.

It’s a good read, and one that supports something I’ve believed for a very long time. “It’s not all in your head, but in your stomach, chest, back, etc. as well.” There’s very possibly a distinct reason that we see yoga or tai chi not only help with the body, but with the state of the mind as well. It’s a bit too early for us to say “Eureka!” but I would imagine that 3000-ish years of practice probably aren’t totally wrong. I would imagine that control of the bandhas (yoga) or focusing on the dan tian (tai chi) does alter how stress-related adrenal response works.

There’s a huge mass of things that we don’t know yet. I recall a conversation I had once with a high-school age student who explained to me “I don’t believe any of that new-age crap, I have science.” As someone who’d majored in biological chemistry and gone to work in data science for about as many years as this young man had been alive, I thought to myself, “Wow, I wish I believed in us as much as he does.” It’s a perspective scenario. He believed the books that were written by people who wrote them based on studies done by people who had questions still. We should all have those questions, and understand how little we really do understand.

I would say that it’s nice to see that there is some support for body/mind integration. I feel like the more that this is explored, the more we could potentially learn about ourselves and how we perceive the world around us.

…until then, I’ll probably keep doing core work, because even if it doesn’t help our abilities to control stress, it should still help prevent back pain.

The Benefits of Open-Thought

诀 曰: 本 拳 基 服 膺, 无 长 不 汇 集。- “Oral Tradition: Adhere faithfully to proven principles and sound doctrines; adopt all beneficial maneuvers and techniques.”

This bit comes directly from a book on one of my most beloved martial arts, Yiquan. While like many of our other topics, it has very little to do with kungfu, and much to do with the state of the mind.

Here, something very special is happening. To some degree, due to Confucian ideas, Chinese martial arts are very much adhered to in as purely of a traditional manner as possible. If your master did it, you do it, but quite often don’t even know why. My sifu used to do this little hand spin at the transition of Lu to Ji in his Yang Tai Chi form, and all of us who studied under him did the same. It’s how we were taught.

One day, I asked about it. He smiled and said, “I trained for years in White Crane (白鶴拳) and I just make that motion now.” That’s where it came from…another style totally, but that was so ingrained in him that it had grown into his students. Why did we do it? Because he did. I still do it…it’s almost like a signature to know from where I learned, and that’s reason enough to keep it.

That doesn’t make it a requirement at all, though. It’s habit turned to memetic turned to tradition. I am glad to be able to answer “why” if I was asked today about it. I almost smile now just thinking about such a subtle thing.

My point, here, is that many things are transmitted through traditions for reasons that we may not even fully understand. How often do we see that bad habits are “passed down” from one generation to the next? Is this genetic, or is it learned? Well..it’s not always as simple as either/or. It may be both nature and nurture.

What does matter is that we keep an open mind to possibilities that we may not have considered. As Suzuki once famously said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Let us all strive to keep this perspective, which may be “no perspective at all.” If we are honest, we all have feelings and judgements about what may be right for us, but they may not be optimal, or even beneficial. We can begin to heal and improve when we are open to the possibilities around us. Especially in the cases of anxiety and depression, we may quite possibly be espoused to styles of thinking that are worsening our conditions.

So, let us all keep ourselves open not only to the fact that others may have techniques that may actually help, but that there is hope for us that things can actually be different.

…and let’s not be too quick to assume that someone else is wrong simply because they “don’t do the little hand twirl.”

The Game of Life –

生活游戏...the life game

We have an absolutely extraordinary attitude in our culture, and in various other cultures, high civilizations, to the new member of human society. Instead of saying frankly to children, “How do you do? Welcome to the human race!” we are playing a game and we are playing by the following rules: we want to tell you what the rules are so that you know your way around, and when you understood what rules we are playing by, when you get older, you may be able to invent better ones.

But instead of that, we still retain an attitude to the child that he is on probation; he is not really a human being, he is a candidate for humanity. And in just this way, we have a whole system of preparation of the child for life which always is preparation and never actually gets there. In other words, we have a system of schooling which starts with grades. And we get it always preparing for something that’s going to happen.

So you go into nursery school as preparation for kindergarten. You are going to kindergarten for preparation for first grade and then you go up the grades ’til you get to high school, and then comes a time when maybe if we can get you fascinated enough with this system, you go to college. And then when you go to college, if you are smart, you get in the graduate school and stay a perpetual student and go back to be a professor and just go round and round in the system.

But in the ordinary way, they do not encourage quite that, they want you, after graduate school or after graduation, commencement as it’s called, beginning to get out into the world with a capital W. And so you know, you’ve been trained for this and now you’ve arrived. But when you get out into the world, at your first sales meeting, they’ve got the same thing going again, because they want you to make that quota and if you do make it, they give a higher quota.

And come along about 45 years of age, maybe you are a Vice President. And it suddenly dawns on you that you’ve arrived with a certain sense of having been cheated, because it is just the same life as it always felt. And you are conditioned to be in desperate need of a future. So the final goal that this culture prepares for us is called retirement – when you will be a senior citizen and you will have the wealth and the leisure to do what you always wanted, but you will at the same time impotence, rotten prostate and false teeth and no energy. So the whole thing from beginning to end is a hoax.” – Alan Watts

Such a concept hits so hard some days. I can actually tell you the moment it really settled in with me that I didn’t like the avatar that I was playing life as. I had coworkers comment that I seemed depressed, I was. Everything had worked out exactly as I had intended, and somehow…I was miserable with it. There was no joy, no flavor to the dream. I missed being 18 and struggling to afford to go to Jujitsu classes, but working extra hours to be sure that I would be able to.

This gave a sense of perspective I’d lost. “I no longer go to class.” This caused me to question if I actually had any real mission, as if life is a game, I’d gotten so distracted by completing side-quests that I’d forgotten there was adventure to be had.

There is always adventure, if you want it.

This is something that I think can only really sink in when we realize that it is us who are making ourselves miserable. What may help is to remind ourselves what class it is that we wanted to play to start with. I personally realized that I wanted to be the monk on a mountainside, doing kung fu at first light. And what was stopping me? I had simply forgotten that I wanted that, in light of all of the important stuff like a career, family, mortgage, etc. It took some drastic life changes to get back on track, but everything felt like progress away from what I knew I hated.

That may be the hardest part of any of this game, to remind ourselves that it’s supposed to be fun. Some of the kids on the playground will tell you that it’s how many toys you collect, some tell you that it’s up to you to make the teacher happy, and others will fight with each other over who should be running the sandbox. None of this is really the point. The point is to enjoy playing, until such time as we are called off the playground to go home.

Ceaselessly Improve

自強不息
To ceaselessly improve oneself
羅文莊
– [calligraphy by] Luo Wenzhuang

There are so many websites that offer to help us help ourselves. Lots are designed simply to absorb money from the users, while others offer helpful advice. So much advice. Maybe too much advice some days.

Before we begin, I think it helps to establish that internet self-help and websites are actually effective in some cases. That isn’t to say that all are, or that all people are targeted by a site. It’s probably worth mentioning, if a site promises to be a “one-stop shop” for fixing everything for everyone, that’s probably a really good indicator that they’re not actually targeted to help anyone at all.

So let’s say that we actually manage to alter ourselves and make some big improvements to things that really matter. Soon, though, we find that we simply don’t have time for the big improvements.

There’s too much to do. Too little time. Too many distractions. Too many competing priorities. Life seems to get in the way. These reasons sound well and good, but (truth bomb coming) they’re all lies. The real reason you don’t plan, eat right, exercise, set goals, grow your business, and live a balanced life isn’t because you have too much to do. It’s not because you get distracted.

“It’s because you aren’t conditioned to.”Michael Mehlberg

Over time, I have found that what works for me is to become totally immersed in my own path. That makes me whatever the opposite of a “self-help guru” would be. I can offer advice, “Wake up 2 hours early and use that time for meditation, qi-gong, and a strenuous workout before breakfast every day. This way, the rest of the day will almost assuredly be easier.” This is not helpful.

The line of thought from yesterday continues: it isn’t about big changes. What will make a difference is to ride the wave of habituation to discomfort. Continual and ceaseless improvement, in small increments, will allow time to adapt to any significant change. Much like periodization in weightlifters, serious change is to be conditioned over long periods of time, with adequate time to recover and grow from the prior stressors.

Give yourself time, and be patient. With any significant change, you can in fact adapt. If you slip, be forgiving to yourself, but get back to your newfound path as soon as possible. It is consistency that will pay off. If we put it off, then “putting it off” may become the new habit.

The Value of Small Habits, and Un-Habits

James Clear has outlined the benefits of using small habits, consecutively, to build up large life changes. This is worth reading and re-reading. We are collections of habits over years, and to make significant changes requires us to really understand how the cue-> craving-> response-> reward loop functions. This also works for breaking “bad habits” as pointed out in the article.

What then, of priorities? “Every goal is doomed to fail if it goes against human nature,” ends the article. Agreed. So why do we end up in places that don’t align with our goals? It would stand that our nature should be for us to be happy, content, but…we aren’t always.

Often, I personally find that we have “artificial goals” that distract us from what we want over a longer period of time to things that we want immediately. Often, our long-term goals require discomfort in the short-term. Exercise vs. having a pizza and beer is a simple example. What may fill our immediate wants and desires works against our wants that require delayed gratification.

Where this comes into question is if the delayed goal will possibly not happen. Often, especially in investment strategies, we see that those who live closer to the poverty line will often take smaller long-term goals that are more certain, as opposed to someone who feels “they can afford to lose.”

This concept is even possibly to blame for our relationship decisions due to a perceived “sunken cost” scenario. While it may seem absurd, it supports that the more a family is struggling, the more likely they are to stick out bad decisions even tolerating partners that make their lives harder.

One possible answer lies in a very ancient place:

He who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.’ – Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, v 44.

To make a more modern scenario, we can look to how minimalism correlates to happiness and stress reduction. Instead of the aforementioned “I can afford to lose” it also works to say “nothing I may lose really will negatively impact me.” This allows us the capacity to find ourselves in a place where we can begin to remove the habits that do not contribute towards our actual goals. It stands to reason that this type of worldview not only allows us the freedom to pursue what we want, but to let go of all of the myriad of things that truly do not matter.

Cheng Man Ching – “Self Cultivation”

One of the more interesting choices of words is in “Master Cheng’s New Method of Self-Cultivation.” I have recently been exploring this particular way of presenting the practice of tai chi chuan, and I rather like “self-cultivation” as a concept.

This isn’t to say that practice, martial training, meditation, etc. aren’t all a part of it. What is implied here is that it’s about “personal growth.” This can take many forms, and I would say that the final performance of any style of tai chi form is actually the presentation of the practitioner’s own growth. That suggests that there is no “right” performance, but that some are grown for beauty, some for a specific purpose, and some a myriad of other reasons.

Consider if a lumber producer was judging trees. Certainly, they’d be looking for the biggest and strongest trees. They would want one that served their purpose, to make good boards. A bonsai, though, would be a terrible choice for such a purpose. This does not mean that it is a ‘bad’ tree, but that it simply wasn’t cultivated with such a use in mind.

Many of our own practices likely are similar. It isn’t that there is a wrong way, but that it may be wrong for our purposes. It is possible to grow a human in a way that isn’t good for their own purpose. What’s worse is to fall into the trap of over-analyzing a practice that is serving our purpose well. If our yoga works to calm our mind, the opinion of someone who does it for a fitness routine will not be particularly useful. If our tai chi works to help our relaxation, hearing from someone who is studying primarily for push-hands practice may have value, but it will not be from the same place of cultivation.

In my own practice, Zhan Zhuang and Silk Reeling are where most of my focus is. To observe my practice might lead someone to believe that I do not support full forms. That would be a great misunderstanding. I have been a long-term practitioner of the large frame yang form, CMC37, and Chen forms. At this point, in my own life and growth, I derive many corrective benefits from my own practice. This does not make it the only path, the only practice, or even proper for where someone else may be in their own growth.

It’s always good to remind ourselves that our practice is our practice, our path is OUR path, and that if we can map the path, it is likely not the eternal path.