Saturday, July 28, 2012

When to Practice Right Conduct

A king approached the Buddha for advice. The king wanted to know how to practice right conduct in those perilous times. (Times are always perilous, aren't they?) The king felt confident that his armies and magicians were adequate protection from any enemy, but nothing was certain. The Buddha presented a situation where none of these defenses would be effective and asked the king what he would do if his kingdom were faced with certain destruction. The king's answer was:

"If, lord, such a great peril should arise, such a terrible destruction of human life — the human state being so hard to obtain — what else should be done but Dhamma-conduct, right conduct, skillful deeds, meritorious deeds?"

In other words, the king said that we should practice Dhamma-conduct when facing certain death. This means to practice those behaviors that are necessary to maintain the natural order of things. He knew that those beings that lived according to the teachings of Dhamma move more quickly toward Nirvana, the cessation of suffering. Right conduct, also known as right action, is one part of the eight-fold path of Buddhism. Note: Dhamma is Pali. The equivalent word in Sanskrit is Dharma.

The Buddha then told the king,

"I inform you, great king, I announce to you, great king: aging and death are rolling in on you. When aging and death are rolling in on you, great king, what should be done?"

The Buddha used the original story of destruction to lead the discussion toward the idea that aging and death come to us all. The king had already said that when faced with certain destruction, we should behave properly in order to move toward Nirvana, or self awakening. The Buddha reminded him that aging and death are no different.

The king replied,
"As aging and death are rolling in on me, lord, what else should be done but Dhamma-conduct, right conduct, skillful deeds, meritorious deeds?

We can be sure that things will change. Nothing is permanent. The Buddha was reminding all of us about the urgency of Dhamma practice.

The quotes are from:
"Pabbatopama Sutta: The Simile of the Mountains" (SN 3.25), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 12 February 2012, . Retrieved on 18 July 2012.

© 2012 Eric Borreson

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Doing It Right

As a tai chi teacher, I am often asked, "Did I do that right?", or, "How do I know if I am doing this right?" My answer is always the same. "It looks about right. You have to practice and pay attention. Then you will know." Students never like that answer very much.

It's a valid point from the student's point of view. My response does not directly answer the question. However, learning tai chi is not like learning arithmetic, where there is one correct answer. Tai chi is an experiential art. It can only be learned by practicing and paying attention. A teacher can explain the mechanics of how to rotate the body during a form. Only the person doing the forms knows how it feels.

The student needs to pay attention to what the teacher says. Then the work of understanding it has to follow. Tai chi is much more than copying the teacher's movements. Every person has different body mechanics and anatomy. We have to pay attention to anything that feels uncomfortable. That's an indication that something isn't right. You need to experiment a bit to see what works. However, don't go wild and disregard what your teacher has told you.

Try some minor variations in what you first learned. During practice, make tiny adjustments and see how it works. Place your foot at a slightly different angle or in a slightly different place. Pay attention to what happens to the stress in your knee. Pay attention to how it affects your weight shifts. Find the way that works best for you and your unique anatomy. Practice it until it happens automatically. The next time you practice, pay attention to something else. Notice how it affects what you learned before. Make new adjustments and practice. With enough practice, you can start to learn what feels "right".

There is an old saying in tai chi that says, "The first 10,000 times don't count". That isn't literal. It means you must do your forms many times. 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.

© 2012 Eric Borreson

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Truths About Tai Chi for Health

Many scientific studies of tai chi have been shown that there are significant medical benefits to practicing tai chi. These studies don't mention the two main obstacles to using tai chi to improve your health. It is our responsibility as teachers to make sure our students understand this early in their practice.

Truth #1 - It takes time
Many people have heard great things about tai chi. They expect wondrous benefits from showing up for class. They are accustomed to the ideas of Western medicine where a doctor gives you a pill and you are better in a few days or weeks at most. When the benefits of tai chi don't miraculously appear after their first class or two, they want to give up.

It is true that many people will start to feel better after a class or two and a couple of weeks of practice. Peacefulness and calmness are common feelings after a beginning tai chi class. However, studies have shown that measurable health benefits really don't show up until the student has practiced for about 10 or 12 weeks. Remember that tai chi doesn't cure anything. Tai chi promotes wellness and helps our bodies move toward their normal healthy status.

When learning tai chi, learning quickly is not necessarily better than learning slowly and deeply. Tai chi has many subtle details that take time to learn. You have to “digest” tai chi. It takes time for it to get into your body and your mind. With each lesson, it is important to practice regularly until that lesson becomes part of you.

Truth #2 - You are responsible
You can't pass the buck. Practice every day. The only way to get the health benefits of tai chi is to practice what you have learned. And guess what? You need to practice for the rest of your life. If you stop practicing, your health will gradually revert to what it was before you started tai chi.

You will have ups and downs to your practice. You will have times where you get bored with it. You have to persevere. Your teacher is a great resource and can help you get over the bumps and through the doldrums.

© 2012 Eric Borreson

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Who's in Charge of Your Tai Chi?

Who is in charge of your tai chi? Do you wait for instructions about when or how to practice? You can drift through your practice, if you want to. You can limit your ability to improve, if you want to. You can wait to be told, if you want to. But why would you want to?

Let's try something different. Take charge of your practice. Your teacher provides the structure of the class and has an extensive body of knowledge. Your teacher knows and explains what you should learn. Your teacher shows you what to do. The rest is up to you.

How many students keep a notebook or practice log? You should. Do you think that you will still remember everything your teacher told you after a year has passed? After every class, take a few minutes to take notes about what you learned. Keep your notes and review them periodically. Practice every day. Keep a record of when and what you practiced. Write down what you felt while practicing. Did it feel comfortable or awkward? Are you able to remember what your teacher asked you to do?

It doesn't have to be complicated or difficult. Try something like this:
(September 1) Class day. Learned Parting Wild Horses Mane. Talked about how to shift our weight and where to place our hands and feet.
(September 2) Went through warmup exercises, practiced Commencement and Parting Wild Horses Mane for 10 minutes. Went well, mostly. Sometimes had trouble placing my feet in the correct position. It seemed different every time.

Use what you learn from your notebook or log. This will help you remember what to talk about with your teacher. After all, your teacher cannot be in charge of your practice. Only you can.

© 2012 Eric Borreson