Saturday, October 29, 2011

Emptiness Really Does Exist (Part 1 of 2)

I've been thinking about emptiness. No, that doesn't mean I've been thinking about nothing. Emptiness is a word that has a very specific meaning in Buddhism. I had always supposed that it means something like "nothing exists", or "absence of spiritual meaning". It turns out that I was pretty clueless.

From Wikipedia:
In Buddhism, emptiness is a characteristic of phenomena, arising from the Buddha's observation that nothing possesses an essential, enduring identity, by virtue of dependent origination. Thus to say an object is "empty" is synonymous with saying that thing is dependently originated.

This is an example of those Buddhist writings that quickly wander off into the "land of makes no sense". That statement is a lot of big words put into a complex, hard-to-read paragraph. When you read something like this, your mind starts to wander and gets lost. Let's break it down to make it easier to understand. Note: This is not an exact quote. I took out the references to the original Pali words. It's hard enough to read is it is.

The phrase, "emptiness is a characteristic of phenomena", means that everything that exists, including our thoughts, has characteristics that can be used to describe it. Emptiness is one of those characteristics.

The phrase, "arising from the Buddha's observation", means that Siddhārtha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, was a pretty smart guy who had lots of time to observe and think how the universe actually works. His teachings make up what we call Buddhism.

The phrase, "nothing possesses an essential, enduring identity, by virtue of dependent origination", is the most important part of this paragraph. It is the foundation of Buddhism. Whenever we sense (see, hear, touch, taste, smell, or think about) anything, we assign a meaning to that sense contact. That meaning is different for every person. Nothing has any meaning by itself.

For example, suppose I observe a pen. Most of us associate the sight of a pen with the idea of writing. But is it correct to say that a pen has some inherent meaning so that everyone that sees it assigns the same meaning? Of course not. What about a pre-literate society where the people have no idea what writing is, let alone what a pen is? Judging just by appearances, a pen may be designed to clean the wax out of my ears. It's obvious that a pen doesn't have any inherent meaning. We have experience with pens as a writing instrument, so that we can assign that meaning to it.

We can extend this idea to everything that we sense. Let's look at the idea of "heroin". For most of us, heroin has meaning as a drug that destroys lives. Heroin is "bad". What about the person that enjoys using heroin to get high? In that person's world view, heroin is "good". I'm not saying you should go out and shoot up and get high. I'm saying that you cannot assign meaning to things because "nothing has an essential, enduring identity, by virtue of dependent origination".

The phrase, "Thus to say an object is "empty" is synonymous with saying that thing is dependently originated", means that everything in the universe only has meaning that we assign to it and that meaning depends on who does the assigning. This does not mean that our sense contacts are not real, or immaterial.

For every sense contact, we have a story (or stories) in our memory banks that we use to explain what it means. This story is probably a memory of previous experiences with that sense contact or something very similar.

Let's look at an easy example. In one of our dharma classes, Carl had us walk outside, barefoot, in damp grass. Several people expressed dismay at the thought of doing that. The point of the exercise is that the feeling of wet grass on our feet is just a sense contact. We all have a story about what it means and we assign a value to that story. After the experience, we all realized that the sense contact is just a story.

Stories are not real. They are a construct of our mind. Stress appears in our lives when we try to see life as something other than what it really is. We need these stories to understand what is happening. We need these stories to communicate with other people. However, our stress begins when we start to believe the stories.

Next time, I will add to this by discussing how to apply this in your life.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Taiji – Stages of Development

This was originally published in the October 2011 Issue of Yang Sheng Magazine.

There is an old saying in tai chi that says, "The first 10,000 times don't count". You should expect that you need to practice your forms that many times to move through these stages. There are no shortcuts. You can read about it. You can think about it. But in the end, tai chi is an experiential exercise. You have to do it.

In general terms, there are three stages of development of your taiji practice.

Stage 1 – practice your external movements so that they are done with correct posture, pacing, and direction of vision.
Stage 2 – practice how energy is stored and delivered in each form.
Stage 3 – practice moving your qi to where you are delivering energy.

Stage 1 – practice your external movements so that they are done with correct posture, pacing, and direction of vision.
It is important to practice your form at this stage until the movements and postures are automatic. This is the easiest stage to learn, but it can be very frustrating for beginners. Everyone else seems so fluid and graceful. It takes time to get past the negative self image and learn to enjoy the movement.

Most teachers and videos do a pretty good job of explaining the movements of a taiji form or set. However, there are many subtleties that can only be learned from a teacher. If you have access to a good teacher, great. Enjoy it and learn lots.

If you do not, do the best you can with videos, books, and other resources. Choose a common form so that you can find an occasional workshop. I recommend either the Yang 24 (Beijing) forms or the Taiji for Arthritis from Dr. Paul Lam Taiji for Health Community. There are many good weekend workshops available.

There are a few simple things that you should know as you begin your practice.

Take your time and learn methodically. Learning faster is not necessarily better. Work through learning the forms at a steady pace and take your time in understanding the details. It's better to learn a few forms or sets well than lots of them carelessly. Plan on learning only 1 or 2 new forms each week.

Remember the 70% Rule. Estimate your greatest ability to perform an exercise. Practice at only 70% of that level. This is not a competition. If it hurts, stop immediately. Apply this rule to everything in taiji, from how far you stretch, to how many repetitions, and to how long you practice. As you become more familiar with the forms and with your own body, you can gradually increase this number.

Control Your Movements. A good first principle at this stage is to learn to control your movements so they are slow, smooth, and continuous. You should move as though there is a gentle resistance. Think of your qi flow as a river. As it flows downhill, it gathers strength. Keep your movements slow, smooth, and continuous to smooth the progress of the qi flow.

Body Alignment. Another way to think about controlling your movements is to work on body alignment. Being upright is very important, but it is not as simple as it seems. A way to approach it is to think of your spine as a string. Imagine gently stretching the string from both ends. Being upright provides the internal organs with more space. An upright body also strengthens the internal deep stabilizer muscles. Try to keep your body upright and supple throughout all the movements. Be especially aware of this when you start bending your knees because your alignment can change. When you bend your knees, imagine that you are sitting down in a straight chair (not the recliner!) and keep your back fairly straight. Use a mirror or video camera to check yourself while practicing.

Practice a little each day. Ten minutes of practice each day will bring you better results than practicing for an hour at a time once a week. You will find that taiji is more challenging than it looks. If you need a break, take one. Frequently, take time to review what you have learned. As you learn the basics of your forms, you will want to practice quite a bit more than ten minutes.

Start to learn the essential principles of taiji. Read Yang Chen Fu’s Ten Essential Principles and start to incorporate them into your practice. Most of them won’t make much sense yet, but that’s OK. Keep returning to them and it will become more clear in time.

As you continue to practice your taiji, you will find that you gradually develop these skills. As you start to get a better understanding of what each form is intended to do, you will eventually start to move into Stage 2 without even being conscious of it.

Stage 2 – practice how energy is stored and delivered in each form.
In Stage 2, study each form in detail and understand the intentions. Most of my experience in is Yang style, so this explanation will follow that experience.

Even the simplest forms have several (many) parts to learn and master. It is a big oversimplification, but we can say that the seven things to focus on at this point are 1) what your feet are doing, 2) what your hands are doing, 3) what your waist (body) is doing, 4) what your eyes are doing, 5, yin and yang, 6) opening, and 7) closing.

According to the classics of taiji, “Internal force is rooted in the feet, developed by the legs, governed by the waist, and expressed in the hands.” This internal force is a spiral force generated at the feet that causes the waist to rotate, which leads the hands in the various taiji forms. Spiral force is beyond the scope of this article, but the comments about the feet, waist, and hands are important at this point in your learning.

1) What is your stance? What are your feet doing? There are many stationary stances, from horse stance with equal weighting on each foot; to bow stance, with the 70/30 weight ratio (brush knee); to empty stance, where essentially all your weight is on one leg (playing lute); and T stance during transitions (fair lady works shuttles). In addition, you should become familiar with dropping stance (snake creeps down) and centering stance (golden rooster stands on one leg). The stance is important in delivering energy (power) during each form.

2) Your hands should be in certain places during the movements of the form. Your hands deliver energy during each form. Understand this and be aware of it during each form. There are many specific hand positions and shapes for different forms.

3) The waist is the part of the body above the hip bones and below the diaphragm. The waist can be moved independently of the hips in some forms. In general, most forms have turning movements. The waist should lead the movement of the arms and the rest of the body. This increases/improves the delivery of energy.

4) During most forms, your eyes should follow your hand(s) during movement. When your hands are moving separately, your eyes should follow the dominant hand. The dominant hand is the one that is delivering energy. This is usually the higher hand or the one that is the most forward. For example, during brush knee, the hand that pushes forward is dominant and should be followed with your eyes. The hand that brushes the knee is not dominant. However, this statement is a little misleading. Your eyes really should be looking “through” your hand at a point beyond the hands to where you want your energy to be delivered.

5) Learn the yin and yang of each hand and foot during each movement. As we begin to move, wu ji separates into yin and yang, the opposite poles of the universe. In other words, our body manifests yin and yang throughout the forms. Yin corresponds to empty/insubstantial and storing energy. Yang corresponds to weighted/substantial and delivering energy. Throughout a form, our hands and feet continuously transition between yin and yang.

6) Every form has an open. This is the part of the form where power is developed and stored. Think of it as a bow and arrow. Pulling on the bowstring is opening and storing energy. For example, during brush knee, one hand goes back while the other one is placed somewhere near your elbow. This is the opening where you are storing energy.

In general, you should inhale sometime during opening movements. Chen Jin, a Chen-style taiji master, wrote that when you are opening, you are solid outside and soft inside. You can feel your body soften as you inhale and expand your abdomen.

7) Every form has a close. This is the part of the form where power is delivered. Again, think of it as a bow and arrow. Releasing the bow string is closing and delivering energy. For example, during brush knee, one hand goes forward while the other one brushes past your knee. This is the closing where you are delivering energy.

In general, you should exhale sometime during closing movements. Chen Jin, a Chen-style taiji master, wrote that when you are closing, you are soft outside and solid inside. You can feel your inside harden, or become more solid, when you are delivering energy as you contract your abdomen.

In summary, continue to learn the essential principles of taiji. Read Yang Chen Fu’s Ten Essential Principles and start to incorporate them into your practice. They should be starting to make more sense now. Keep returning to them and it will become more clear in time.

Stage 3 – practice moving your qi to where you are delivering energy.
In Stage 3, you begin to learn to use your intent to direct the flow of qi through your body. Mental focus is essential to this step.

Circulating Your Qi
The next phase of understanding open and close, as described in Stage 2, is to start moving your qi as you open and close. When you open (inhale), move your qi from your dan tian, through your perineum, and up your yang meridian (along your spine) toward the bai hui point at the crown of your head. When you close (exhale), move your qi down your yin meridian (the front center of your body) to the lower dan tian.

Keep your mouth gently closed with your tongue touching your upper palate. It may take a long time (years) to become comfortable with this. It is important that you do not force your breathing here. If you are not sure where to be inhaling and exhaling or you get tired, just allow your body to breathe naturally.

There is a statement in the taiji classics that says something like, “The mind (intent) moves the internal energy and the internal energy moves the body.” This is an important principle, but it is difficult to learn. It is important to practice your way through the three stages of development before you can really understand intent.

Intent is discussed in Yang Cheng Fu's Ten Essential Principles of Taijiquan, where he says, "use intent, not muscular strength.". Intent has 3 common meanings in taiji practice. First, intent means thoughts or expectations. Second, intent means qi or internal energy. Third, intent means to be aware of and pay attention to your own internal strength.

The emphasis on intent is important in taiji because the use of strength is very different than other martial arts. Taiji uses slow, soft force to deflect or divert an opponent’s energy instead of meeting force with force. This allows time for your mind to contemplate the movement and imagine the movement in your mind before your muscles actually move.

Intent also involves the use of your eyes. In the taiji classics, it says something like, “The eyes and the hands must follow each other.” However, this does not mean that your eyes must exactly follow the movement of your hands. It means that your eyes and hands must arrive at the same point at the same time.

When you are practicing taiji, move slowly and continuously and use intent to move beyond the physical part of the form. This helps to develop a strong mind-body connection. Qi gets stronger as it continues to flow, just like the force of water gets stronger as it flows downhill. If you stop moving during the forms, your qi also stops moving.

Don’t forget that taiji is an internal art. This means that the movements begin in your mind. Your intention leads the movements of your energy. And from that energy, you create an internal energy. As you move, think about applying a soft, gentle energy to your movements. Use that to lead your movements. Eventually, you will begin to feel the internal energy move within you. The key is to practice regularly.

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Sinking the Qi Part 2 – Focus on Breathing

I have written about the word sink in the context of sinking the qi. In this sense of the word sink, it means to relax the hips and waist, lower the pelvis bones, and allow your body to settle. Let your shoulders relax away from your neck. Allow your skeleton to support your body. Use your intention to lower your elbows.

A big part of sinking is developing song (relax/loosen) and jing (mental quietness) in your practice.  Following the principle of song means to relax your body, without going limp, and loosening up the muscles, tendons, and joints. Jing means to focus your mind on your forms and avoid distractions. Proper breathing helps with both of these principles.

Last week I wrote about when to inhale and when to exhale and how that relates to storing and delivering energy. This week, I am going to focus on breathing techniques that help you focus your mind and improve your flow of qi.

Abdominal Breathing
Abdominal breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, helps you to sense qi. As you exhale, you should try to sense a warm, tingly, or heavy feeling in your dan tien. Don’t worry if you don’t feel this at first. That’s normal. Continue practicing to develop your ability to sense your qi.

For abdominal breathing, take several long slow deep breaths. Allow your mind to relax so you can begin to focus on your mind-body connection. Concentrate on the abdomen area below the diaphragm. When you exhale, gently contract the muscles in your pelvis and lower abdomen. Keep the chest relatively still. When you inhale, expand your abdomen. Again, keep your chest relatively still. In other words, exhale by contracting your abdomen. Inhale by expanding your abdomen.

This type of breathing uses your diaphragm to expand your lungs. As we get older, we tend to breathe shallower. This change is primarily due to sitting and hunching over. This exercise greatly expands your lung capacity and counteracts the bad influence of hunching over. This is very relaxing and improves your qi.

Continue to practice abdominal breathing during meditation or while practicing tai chi. Keep your attention on your lower abdomen in the area around your dan tien. With enough practice, it will become natural and comfortable.

Dan Tien Breathing
To learn how to breathe with this method, place one hand over your upper abdomen, above your belly button. Place your other hand over your lower abdomen, below your belly button. During both inhales and exhales, try to keep your top hand from moving.

When you exhale, gently contract your lower abdomen as if the air is leaving the balloon. Gently contract the pelvic floor muscles at the bai hui point along your perineum.

When you inhale, imagine that the air fills your lungs, bypasses your upper abdomen, and fills your lower abdomen and gently expands it like a balloon. Gently relax the pelvic floor muscles at the yin hui point in the perineum. You probably will not be able to breathe as deeply as you could during regular abdominal breathing.

This technique adds an additional focus on your perineum, the area between your anus and your genitals. Use your yi, or focused attention, to gently contract the muscles of the pelvic floor located at the midpoint of the perineum. Visualize that you are contracting those muscles toward your belly button as you inhale. Allow those muscles to relax as you exhale. If you get tired, just relax and go back to breathing naturally.

When you are comfortable with dan tien breathing, remove your hands and stand in dan tien. In addition, the Dan Tien Breathing method can be practiced while doing the Open and Close Hands form of Sun style tai chi. Dr. Paul Lam describes it like this (dan tien breathing):
“The dan tien breathing method is especially effective for relaxation and for healing. Whenever you feel stressed or nervous, take a gentle breath. Start doing open and close. Breathe in and out and you most likely will find your mind clears up and the stress eases off.”

Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming talked about this in his book TheRoot of Chinese Qigong: Secrets of Health, Longevity, & Enlightenment. He described it like this:
“... abdominal breathing is an important part of Buddhist Qigong training and so it is often called "Buddhist Breathing". To practice it, you must first use your Yi to control the muscles in your abdomen. When you inhale, intentionally expand your abdomen, and when you exhale, let it contract. In addition, when you inhale, you should gently push out your Huiyin (Co-1) cavity or anus, and when you exhale, hold it up. “

This type of breathing helps clear your mind (develop jing) and helps loosen and relax your body (song). It takes lots of practice. There are also other benefits to this type of breathing. According to Dr. Lam, the muscles closest to the spine work different than other muscles in terms of function and neuromuscular properties. Their function is to protect and strengthen the spine. In Western medicine and anatomy, these muscles are called the deep stabilizers. A way to strengthen these muscles is to use this type of breathing, as well as proper posture and alignment.

Traditional writings in tai chi refer to “pulling up the anus” or “contracting the anus”. I have never understood that idea very well. I think that this means the same as what I have been calling Buddhist Breathing. However, note that this does not mean contract the buttocks. These muscles need to be relaxed when not needed, just like all other muscles.

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Sinking the Qi to the Dan Tien

I have written before about this topic. It sometimes seems a little esoteric, but it doesn't need to. I have rewritten a previous post with more detail about some of the key topics to try to remove some of the confusion.

Chen means to sink. Chen refers to using your breathing to sink your qi to your dan tien. The dan tien is important to everything we do in tai chi. Chen enhances song and jing. During exhalation, your qi naturally sinks to the dan tien when the principles of tai chi are followed. When song and jing are achieved, the qi flows naturally.

 In this sense of the word sink, it means to relax the hips and waist, lower the pelvis bones, and allow your body to settle. Let your shoulders relax away from your neck. Allow your skeleton to support your body. If your shoulders are lifted up, the tight joints block the flow of energy. Use your intention to lower your elbows. Avoid overextending your arms while practicing tai chi. Keep them slightly bent and hold them in a curve, with your armpits slightly open. This type of sinking is soft on the outside and hard on the inside. This is the origin of the term “strength like a metal rod wrapped in cotton”.

Breathing is generally not taught to beginning tai chi students because they have a tendency to let the breathing become more important than the movement. Specifying breathing patterns during a form can impede your progress by creating tension. It can lead to an emphasis on the breathing at the expense of the essential principles of tai chi. It should be the opposite. Allow your body to breathe naturally. Use these guidelines to give some direction. There may be exceptions.

Every form in tai chi has an associated inhale and exhale. The whole process of breathing and sinking your weight is called “sinking the qi”.

In general, inhale during movements that are up and in (opening movements) and movements that store energy. Inhale during movements when expanding your chest, such as with the opening hands movement in Sun style. Also, inhale during movements creating an insubstantial movement, such as when doing a roll back. 

Exhale during movements that are down and out (closing movements) and movement that deliver energy. Exhale during movements when compressing your chest, such as with the closing hands movement in Sun style. Also exhale during movements creating a substantial movement, such as when doing a push or press.

As you exhale, allow your body to sink. As you step, allow your weight to settle down onto your substantial leg. Visualize that your spine is stretching and the qi is flowing through your leg down into the earth. This helps improve your balance and strengthen your legs. Stronger muscles strengthen the joints and tendons and improve your joint health.

Tai chi movements generally alternate between gathering (storing) energy and delivering that energy. Inhaling during opening stores the energy, like drawing a bow, and brings in the qi. Exhaling during closing delivers the energy and sends the qi. Raising your hands in commencement stores the energy. Lowering your hands delivers energy and sends the qi. This means to inhale or exhale sometime during the movement, not necessarily during the entire movement. Your body will develop the ability to breathe properly as you practice tai chi.

My next article will continue this topic and focus more on breathing to help you learn to focus your attention.

© 2011 Eric Borreson