Tension

My studies in self development have been long and varied, spanning (so far) over 16 years and including forays into traditional Chinese martial arts, gymnastic strength training, flexibility and mobility of many kinds, natural movement, parkour, dance, movement culture, and the more popularized forms of strength and conditioning training. In the last 5 years this has all mostly been discarded in favour of my Daoist tradition, Da Xuan, and the main reason for this is that it does what I’m interested in far more effectively than any of the former arts. The very first question that one might respond to such a statement should be: “What exactly *are* you interested in?”

Good question!

Besides the various spiritual and self development aspects I’m pursuing (which are mostly individual – who am I really, what is my path and purpose in this incarnation, am I doing this stuff because I want to or because someone else told me I should, and so on), one of the central and simple things I have been investigating for a long time is the relationship between tension, strength, weakness, and relaxation. In other words, how relaxed can I be while still remaining usefully strong? Having been lucky enough to have studied with some exceptionally bright people who are themselves leaders in this field, I have learned quite a few things about the topic which might be useful to others.

My fascination began, as far as I can recall, upon feeling the tissue quality of my first teacher, Dapeng. His soft tissue (the red muscles and white connective tissue) did not feel like any adult I had felt at the time. The quality was much more like that of a baby or a cat. It was kind of squeegy and I could palpate straight to the bone at many points on his body and by all appearances the parts I did not palpate held this quality too. The kicker was that, unlike many noodle-esque people I had met who are soft-but-not-in-the-good-way, this suppleness was matched by his way more than reasonable strength. He had strength and relaxation, and most importantly could express these two qualities simultaneously. An embodied union of opposites if I ever saw one! He could also, at will, flex the squeeginess away and his skin would feel something like hardwood to the touch.  It is very strange to feel such things in an adult and I can count on one hand the amount of people I have met besides him who have these qualities since then.

The cat-like tissue idea also appeared for me around the same time in the book "Way of the Peaceful Warrior"

At some point the idea arose in me: “could I train this body to be of such quality that a massage therapist could not find anything to work on?” It’s a lofty ideal that is probably unattainable, but that has not prevented me from trying and making some serious inroads into the matter. Along the way I have come across a number of principles that I feel should be understood if someone wants to pursue this. Let’s have a look at them now.

First up we have some of the broad principles that will help us operate and explore:

      • Tension blocks circulation and by extension our capacity to feel
      • Tension protects weakness
      • Long term (chronic) tension falls away from conscious awareness
Circulation

Circulation is pretty important. New and fresh in, old and stale out. We eat fresh food and breathe in fresh air, and excrete the used/stale food and breathe out the stale air. The various organic fluids bring fresh nutrients and oxygen to the far corners of the body, removing the waste products. Keeping these fluids moving through *all* corners of the body is crucial to health. In fact, in many traditional systems of medicine they have the idea that if everything is perfectly circulating then you are free of disease. It’s an ideal that we can move closer and closer towards, and in my experience doing so has an accelerating and cumulative effect on feeling and relaxation.

So we want to improve our circulation. I’ll use the image of a sponge to give an impression of the relationship we have between tension in the soft tissues and circulation. If you held a sponge in a running river it would slowly fill up with water, and new water would be moving through the entire sponge. Squeeze the sponge and the new water is blocked from going inside, instead it would go around the tight parts of the sponge. Inside the tight parts would either dry up or contain trapped water which starts to go stale. Release the squeeze and the relaxation of the sponge would drag fresh and new water through its interior and clean out the water that was trapped inside. So tension itself is not a problem and in fact very beneficial used in the right way. 

Keeping tension on the other hand is not so good. If the sponge were to remain squeezed indefinitely, the trapped water would slowly become stagnant and stale, various little lifeforms that enjoy swamp like conditions would begin to party and multiply and sooner or later (read: sooner) this part of the sponge is going to end up being either gross and sludgy or dry and crusty in the situation where there is no water. Using this image to consider the soft tissues of our body we can see that it is in our best interests to keep all of the muscles undulating between a contracted and a deeply relaxed state. In other words, get rid of all of the chronic/held tension.

Weakness

This is where we run into a bit of a conundrum. Tension is a mechanism in the body used by some kind of amazing unconscious biological intelligence to protect damaged and weakened parts of our system – parts that are not capable of producing or receiving much force. Another image to give you an impression of how this functions: when the body is damaged in some way, the tension that arises is akin to a host of guards that are called in. Their job is to make a 300-esque Spartan shield wall that surround the weak point and take all the hits of force that come through that area until the weakness is strong once more. This is a wonderful response that allows us not to be crippled for months after a small injury – if it didn’t happen the weak point would just be torn apart and mutilated the next time a significant force comes through the area.

The body gains strength from exposure to the right amount of stress and force. This force must occur within a goldilocks-like spectrum:  Too little and nothing changes (actually, it will atrophy and get worse), too much and it will break. So weak areas need to be gradually exposed to more and more force, and for them to be exposed they need the guarding tension to progressively stand down. If you put too much force through the area too soon, or by some method convince too many of the guards to stand down thereby exposing and overwhelming the weak point, the body is going to (properly) respond by re-deploying the protective tension and possibly even doubling or tripling the guard. Repeat this too many times and you dramatically increase the strength of the guards (tension) and simultaneously reduce the likelihood of getting the guards to stand down at all (relaxing). The body remembers that last time it stood the guard down things went horribly wrong and doesn’t want a repeat mistake – fair enough too!

AWARENESS AND FEELING

Our minds are being bombarded at any point by what is basically way-too-much information. To organise it so it doesn’t overwhelm us, it will push things that don’t change out of conscious awareness and into the realm of the unconscious – business as usual. Things that are changing regularly then have space to come to the forefront of our awareness so we can consider the change and adapt as necessary. Circulation is a thing that is changing regularly: new in, old out. Change, change, change of a constant but shifting kind. This means it brings feeling and awareness of what’s going on. Worse circulation: less feeling; better circulation: more feeling. You can try this for yourself, just slap your hand hard on the table and then look at it and feel it. The new stimulus makes the hand go red from new blood and various other bodily substances (increased circulation), and you can feel it a lot more clearly (increased awareness).

The issue of tension is not that it exists, but that the guards can end up permanently on duty. This not only takes a significant amount of personal resources to maintain, but as we also saw cuts off the weak links from circulation. It just kind of stays there out of sight and mind, sucking up resources – more resources if the guard has been tripled a few times. Except that it’s not out of sight at all, it is likely contributing directly and indirectly to many problems faced that are common amongst our chronically over tensioned population. The amount of times I’ve accidentally and indirectly sorted out my own, or someone else’s, problems by simply focusing on removal of seemingly-unrelated excessive tension and strengthening the weak links is high.

Strength

My strategy for freeing myself of this tension has necessarily been a two-fold approach:

      1. Convince the guards to stand down (unsqueeze the sponge)
      2. Progressively and gradually strengthen all of the weak links until such time as a maximal force through the area doesn’t invite the guards back

So we have to work on strength *and* relaxation at the same time. Here’s my reasoning for why: If you only work on relaxation techniques you convince the guards to stand down but you won’t bring enough, or any, force through the weak link to stimulate it to become strong again. This means that as soon as force – especially chaotic force – is re-introduced to the area, the tension guard is re-established. Inversely, if you work only on traditional strengthening techniques, the body will (rightfully) select the strongest pathways to perform the task and reinforce them further, which will route the force via the outside of the shield wall rather than through the weak link.  Basically you turn your guard into The Mountain from Game of Thrones (definitely the undead version from the later seasons), and, well, you’ll have about as much luck convincing him to stand down as Qyburn did.

Now, this does not mean you can’t get super strong by normal strengthening techniques, it’s just that by doing so you will progressively make it more difficult to access and repair the weak points that get buried under loads of very strong tension deep in the system somewhere. Depending how much you do it slows or completely stops the process – the body really has an incredible capacity to avoid using these weak points so the method used to expose them must have a way of cornering the weak link and leaving it no other choice but to gradually strengthen. If you have The Mountain there, like Cersei (who is herself quite weak), you have another choice.

Relaxation techniques can provide very useful temporary relief. Training strength in the already-strong pathways appears to make one strong at the cost of hiding the tension and weak links more thoroughly. Strength training will stop being counter-productive to our process here only once the most effective pathways of the bodily structure have been cleared of weak links, i.e. you have a good structure and the good structural pathways are also the strongest so get chosen by default, i.e. you are free of compensation patterns, i.e. the body operates as a reasonably efficient single unit that doesn’t fight itself or gravity. To accomplish this, I’ve found it best to work at things in a specific order: strengthen weak links and unite the system *first* – which is a slow, somewhat boring task that takes between 5 and 10 years as best I can see – and only after this is done work on the ‘big strength’.

Structure

The concept of the structure that I’ve mentioned here is layered. A strong structure is a frame that will hold the body up with minimal need for tension in the soft tissue to act as guy-wires. It is the strength of the well-aligned skeleton combined with reinforced joints that allows the soft tissues to relax. It needs to be particularly aligned to gravity, which is a constant force, and respond accordingly to any other external force, reorganising as needed to be a good conductor of the multiple vectors of incoming force (i.e., gravity + other). Hidden tension caused by weak links distorts this alignment, *increasing* the amount of strength/tension you need to do any given activity.

Alignment of 'blocks' concept by Ida Rolf

The vision from Ida Rolf shown above is pretty much spot on from the perspective of gravity, although unlike rolfing I am also interested in progressively strengthening this good alignment so it works in increasingly complex and demanding situations, against other incoming forces, and making it dynamic so that even as I move about it maintains integrity. Experientially this means that the effort is perceived more and more as ‘coming from the centre’, and as previously mentioned in another article , the centre is a funhouse of all kinds of paradox – so it makes sense that the simultaneous expression of strength and relaxation comes from there too.

A United Approach

The most effective way I’ve found of working at this puzzle is the previously mentioned ‘doing it at the same time’. Some guidelines to look for exercises that do this are in order:

Firstly, the exercises need to be done for a long enough period of time that they can provoke the guarding tension to stand down. The simple way to do this is to exhaust the tension with the exercise. Work until the tension is felt (which is usually the point that people *stop* the exercise because it gets pretty uncomfortable), keep working until the protective tension relaxes and exposes the weak point (advanced practitioners can sometimes skip this whole step with an intentional command to relax), keep working some more to strengthen the weak point. This process can be done in some cases in a single session, in others over a number of sessions – but sustained, uninterrupted effort is a must, less the area revert to its ‘known’ format with the guards and such. The exercises(s) used must be both gentle enough so as not to further irritate the weak link and invite the guarding tension back, and strong enough or done for long enough in a single go that it will actually exhaust the guarding tension and strengthen the link. The more gentle the exercise, the longer it needs to be sustained to produce the desirable effect. Conversely, too strong and either the guard won’t stand down or if it does you’ll damage the weak link and invite the guard back. As a general guide, any exercises that require significant rest periods (days between sessions or seconds/minutes between sets & reps) to recover are not useful for this process.

Secondly, the exercises should generally be backed by a strong intention to maintain whatever the  movement and structural/postural points of the exercises are, and simultaneously relax as completely as possible. This skill will always involve a little bit of back and forthing between being too relaxed where the desired posture collapses a little or you lose the motion, and being too tense. It is something that gets refined over time and more precision is necessary to find some of the deeper tensions that hang around the organs, nervous system, or deep in the emotional and mental landscapes.

Next, we want to work in both a specific way with exercises that target known weak links, and in a general way with exercises that globally target the entire system at once so that the elusive tensions and subtle compensation patterns that hide out in the shadows and escape detection can be resolved too. The very best exercises will target the specific and the global simultaneously.

Finally, over-thinking and over-analysis also create their own kind of mental tension and in bad cases can make you neurotic about something. Analysis and intellectual consideration create the structure of our training so are necessary to stop our training becoming noodle-like. Taken too far though, and it makes our minds excessively rigid – a condition that is rife in the modern world. To prevent unnecessary tension in the mental space, we need times in our practice where we don’t think, ask ‘why’, correct or analyze, but rather relax the mind as much as we can while we train.  In other words, we need to spend about half our practice time following the wise words of Shia Labeouf:

Intense Sensation

We have to remind ourselves here that to get to a state of deep relaxation, we must address the weak points and that is not generally going to be a ‘fun’ experience. Often, revealing the weak link can make things feel worse than they were prior to not knowing about it. How bad the original issue was, the related emotional states, and the length of time it has been quarantined, are all factors that affect both the sensory experience and the duration needed to resolve the issue. The discovery of a previously unknown weak link can often be paired with some kind of intense and noxious sensation.

I want to take a moment to really reinforce this next point: to strengthen this weak link does not mean that we make the noxious sensations disappear, it means that we want to transform the sensation from noxious to something more managable.

Ignorance is not bliss. If the sensation disappears then you have simply reinstated (or in some cases strengthened) the guard and plunged the weak link back into the shadows of the unconscious. Once a noxious link is discovered, our aim should not be to get the rather intense, uncomfortable sensation to ‘go away’.

Noxious sensation is superior to no sensation!!!

We want to keep the sensation around and get it to participate as much as possible in what’s going on without further irritating it, until it resolves. This is a fine line to walk. A mistake that would plunge one suddenly into the wrong side of the equation can drag you back to the beginning or an even worse position. Hence, exercises that achieve this in a slower but less risky fashion are preferable. Light or medium intensity motions that are regularly repeated are ideal here. A long, slow ‘juicing’ of the weak link of all of its accumulated sludge until it’s back to fresh and full capacity is what we’re after. To go back to the image of the swampish sponge, we want to continuously squeeze and release it until it is clear of all swamp-like materials and only fresh water is moving through. The felt sensation at the point of resolution is really very close to the feeling of a clean river running through the affected area. The transformation of the noxious sensations into this clean and fresh sensation is one of the good signs of successful resolution, the disappearance of the noxious without this (or another) new sensation is not desirable. We must then rinse and repeat this process with the next hidden tension and weak link (pun intended).

As the great sage Nisargadatta Maharaj once said: And soon you will see your mistake. And it is in the very nature of a mistake to cease to be, when seen.” Literally all we need to do is ‘see’ the weak point for enough time that it is thoroughly ‘seen’/known.

Nisargadatta Maharaj

As you might imagine this is quite like going down the rabbit hole. Resolution of one tension and weak link can reveal more tension and weakness that was hidden deeper in the system. I will remind the reader again that this is viewed as a positive in this approach. To clean it all out we must go right down to the very centre – literally all the small tensions near the bones, organs, nervous system sheaths and so on. It’s a long process and if you want to do any more than a superficial job it becomes quite necessary to put down many activities that would go against it, or risk stretching the process out by decades and decades. The good news is that when it’s done it’s pretty much done – even in the case of re-injury, being armed with the skills to start resolving it immediately means things don’t really get stuck in the system again. In my personal experience the (progressively more) united expression of effortless, relaxed strength has been infinitely more interesting and wonderful to live with and have readily available than the raw strength I had worked on in the past.

How to Start

So this is what I’m interested in and if your interest is now sufficiently piqued and you are wanting some exercises to get started with this mammoth task, I might remind you of what I actually do for a living: teach people to resolve this tension. I have plenty of stuff available for the task too!

The teachings that I now offer, and the themes in this article, are all based on what I’ve learned in Da Xuan. Most are either directly and strictly from Da Xuan or are exercises from other modern and traditional systems that I am showing in a specific way congruent with this model and approach. When I’ve posted these exercises I’ve always included the ‘how to’ in terms of the cues and needed timing, but rarely included the ‘why should I’ part. If you’re a person that needs a ‘why’ to begin doing something then hopefully this article serves that purpose. As for the exercises themselves, you can find a selection of options below:

Of course if you’re curious or have questions about any of the topics of this article feel free to shoot me an email or contact me in any other way.

Happy training!

Refining the Center

Being good Daoists, us practitioners of Da Xuan do lots of work on the refining of the center, or becoming centered. Centered is a term that is used in many schools of practice, particularly in martial arts and dance. In my experience, most of the time it is taught in an incredibly vague way with instructions like “try to be more centered”. Some people get it, some people don’t. I was in the camp of nod and smile and hope they don’t notice that you have no idea what they mean when I heard such cues. I suspect I am not the only one who has experienced this, so a bit more clarity on what exactly being centered means appears to be in order.

To understand the center it is necessary to take a look at the bigger picture. Our relative experience of the world is governed by opposing forces. The ebb and flow of the opposites are the very movement of life itself. It is impossible for one extreme to exist without the other and so in any given element exists a seed or potential of its opposite. This concept is most famously realized by the symbol of the tàijítú, more colloquially known as the ‘Yin and Yang’ symbol:

The more modern version on the left, an older rendition on the right

Here we see the opposites represented by the colours black (on the right and bottom, Yin) and white (on the left and top, Yang). The curves of the symbol give the impression of movement, and the whole thing encompassed within a circle shows the cyclical nature of the opposites. Yin Yang theory is an incredibly deep study on its own and I do not want to go into that here. What is relevant to this article and what is not made apparent by the symbol (although it is obviously there) is the center – the point around which the opposites turn.

The center in this sense is not polarized. It is neither yin nor yang but it is in the middle of both. Another way I like to phrase it is that it is in-between the opposites. It has a spacious, non-fixed quality about it;  as if at any moment it could easily go towards either of the opposites. It is full of the potential of the opposites without being bound by them and so in a certain sense it fully contains both of the opposites. It is a position of open potential.

The problem with what I’ve explained is that it’s a nice idea but ideas don’t help anyone unless it can somehow become manifest in reality. To take this idea as a belief or concept that you hold on to in your mind is to do the very thing that every good spiritual tradition warns against. To make it appear in reality, we need something to do. Not just thinking about it a lot but actually engaging in a practice to bring the idea to life. The best way I have found is to explore this on the physical level first. The physical is much more tangible and obvious than the emotional or mental realms and so it’s much easier to confront the reality of it without deceiving ourselves. 

Let’s use this concept to look at our posture, and we will start at our feet. It’s useful to gauge the physical opposites so we have a working point to find that which is in between the opposites. We can have the feet internally and externally rotated, the weight forward on the toes or back on the heels, pronation (collapsing inwards) and supination (rolling outwards) of the ankle, and we can have the feet close together or wide apart. The in-betweens are feet parallel with toes pointing forward (between internal and external rotation), the weight in the middle of the foot (between forward and backwards, and between pronated and supinated) and the feet shoulder width apart (somewhere between too close together and too far apart). Our knees want to be  on top of the feet and pointing in the same direction in the toes, which is related to the pronation and supination of the ankle, and between being too straight and too bent. Our hips must hang relaxed, neither posteriorly or anteriorly tilted. The glutes and lower abdominals must be relaxed so the effort goes into the center of the leg nearer to the bone.  Our torsos are straight, the spine is neither in flexion, extension, lateral flexion or rotation at any point. The arms are hanging by the side, the shoulders are between protraction and retraction. The neck is neither too far forward (poke neck/upper crossed syndrome) or too far back (military posture), the head is lifted gently to balance the hanging hips and create space in between each of the vertebrae.

A typical postural image, the left image is a projected ideal but has not accounted for the need to sink in the hips and relax the knees

What I’ve described above is not really rocket science or anything new, most physiotherapists will talk about this kind of posture in some way or another. But we need to practice regularly to understand and dare I say embody it, then we can use this understanding of being in-between to refine it even further. Most people when asked to take such a posture will not be able to take it without torquing and tensing just about every muscle in their body. A good therapist can possibly massage some of this tension out but it will return in a day or two.

Tension is the opposite of relaxation and so winding ourselves up with heavy tension to achieve this ideal posture is counter productive, as is going completely slack and relaxed which will collapse the posture. If we recall our idea of spaciousness at the center we can use this to direct our position. The set up is a way of arranging the body so there is space in each joint.  To encourage this we need to find a way to be neither overly tensed or overly relaxed. In other words, we need to be as open in the joints as possible while simultaneously being as relaxed as possible. If I use the hand to demonstrate you can get the feel of it pretty easily: Open the hand as wide as you can and you see it invites a lot of tension into the hand.  Relax it as much as possible (just go floppy!) and you see the hand’s structure collapses and the fingers roll closed. Try instead opening the hand as much as you can while simultaneously being as relaxed as you can. If you get it dialed well, you can sometimes find in that the hand starts to vibrate or shudder.

Hand open but tense; hand relaxed but collapsed; and the 'goldilocks' expression that is both open and very relaxed.

This vibration is a very typical response when nearing any of the in-betweens mentioned. It’s a confusion of sorts as the body leaves habitual fixation on a particular opposite and starts shifting from one opposite to the other in very quick succession. As you get to a more refined center position, this vibration will be experienced less on the surface but more deeply in the body. It eventually creates a paradoxical relaxed tension. The body has structure but is deeply relaxed. This conjoining of the opposites is one of the main signs that you are truly in the center and not just hanging out in an opposite nearby to it.

Unfortunately there is no quick fix to becoming suddenly perfectly centered. What you can do today though is orient yourself towards becoming more centered and refining your lived experience of this, particularly in the physical body.  To begin, just take 10 minutes a day and practice setting yourself up in the most centered posture you can, then stay there. It is important to remember that to be in between tense and relaxed means that on any given day, your most centered posture for that day will be different to what it was on another day depending on what your hidden tension and stress is doing on that day. In fact, the best current expression of the center will change as you practice. Of course we move towards an ideal, but to not acknowledge the tensions of the given day orients us towards the extremes and away from the center. The orientation in this sense is more important than the current expression.

We also see that it’s not useful to only hang out in the center. We can’t truly know that we are in the center if we aren’t intimate with the extremes, but we do want to have the center as a home base of sorts that we regularly return to to recuperate. To understand the center as precisely as possible, we must explore the extremes. If we’ve seen all of the white but only half of the black, then our center is going to be incorrectly set up a little on the white side. Again, this is a nice idea to entertain but we need a practice to understand and live it.

A simple but powerful example: Take our standing posture from the video above. Without changing the posture, shift the weight as far forward onto the toes as you can. Feel that the more you go towards the extremes of the toes, the more tension is necessary to hold you up. Return as precisely as you can to the center. Feel that as you return to the center the whole body can relax (keep your posture though!). Then we take it backwards onto the heels and we see again that the more you go towards the extreme of the heel, the more tension is needed. Once again we return to the center and we can relax. Having explored the other opposite now, we also have an opportunity to see if we over or undershoot the center. Every time we return from the extremes, we have an opportunity to be more refined with where we settle in between. You can further refine this exercise by progressively reducing how far towards either extreme you venture: you can go half way to the toes, then return, then half way to the heels, then return, or 2 centimeters towards the toe, back to the center, then 2 centimeters towards the heel, then back. The smaller the distance, the more precisely you have to be at the center upon your return, otherwise you’re just wobbling around in one of the extremes. The amount you can deeply relax will be reflective of how close you are. To confront this to reality you can do this exercise until you’re as precise as you can be and then stand for a long time (30 – 60 minutes should be enough). If you have any sense of pressure anywhere on the foot, parts of your leg falling asleep, or any other points of pressure like this it means you’re not quite there yet. No problem, just keep practicing!

This particular exercise going forward and back is a staple in Da Xuan, but it can be easily translated to other areas of the body such as bending the knees too much then straightening them too much, or hinging the hips (as if you were sitting in a chair) vs standing extremely upright (which would require significant glute activation!), or moving the head between poke neck and military neck. Whatever the case, the key ingredients are to notice the tension increasing as you approach whichever extreme, and to make a point of returning to the center as precisely as you can and noticing the relaxation.

As I mentioned earlier in the piece, establishing the center is a way of fusing the opposites by bringing awareness to that which is in between and connecting them. You will find in the beginning that the center is really vague, kind of like a big abyss and you can’t quite find it. Having it out of awareness like this is what leads to conflict between opposites and fixation on one extreme or the other. To be truly centered is to fuse the opposites and thus open the potential for either or both to occur at any given moment. Start with the physical, a few minutes a day is enough to begin with. Living in a body that is centered and thus whole is a deeply relaxing, rich and rewarding experience that is well worth the investment of daily practice. And you might just make the world a better place by letting go of your fixations on extremes.

Thresholds

Ideas and concepts can help us consider things we may have missed and can often lead to adjustments in training methods that can make a significant difference to the results of our practice. As much as I talk about getting on with training and not overthinking too much, it is still very important to consider certain ideas and make use of conceptual frameworks at the appropriate time if you want to continue evolving. I will make a point of the word appropriate here, for as much as the framework and ideas that follow in this article will work wonders in the approaches of most Daoist practices, Chinese Martial Arts and jibengong, they can also most certainly bring equally horrific effects when used poorly or with incompatible modes of training such as most weight lifting, bodyweight strength and conditioning and other high intensity exercises.

The concept I want to introduce today is one that I have taken to calling thresholds and one I wish I had have come to understand much sooner than I did. In the Daoist approach to practice, for the most part we use very simple exercises. The fundamental exercises are generally done lying, sitting, standing or walking, with some kind of motion of the arm or leg. To do them once or twice is generally an easy affair that can be taught to most people in a short amount of time.

What is interesting here is that because we are practicing in very natural positions that we all use throughout our day to day lives, it is possible for even a rank beginner to perform many of the exercises sort-of-correctly from the get go. In my experience however, it is most common that people encountering this kind of practice for the first time stop or regularly interrupt their practice out of boredom, the belief that nothing terribly important is happening, or a feeling that they can already do the exercise correctly and so they are ready to move on to the next thing.

Doing the exercise ‘correctly’ here is not the purpose. In fact, to do the exercise correctly (in a general sense at least) is simply a sign that you have passed from learning how to do the exercise to being able to get on with actually just doing it.  In a sense, it’s closer to being able to begin training than being an indication of any kind of end. The purpose is to use the exercise to carry you towards and eventually beyond different thresholds. It is also often the case that the threshold is not clear or obvious until after you’ve passed it. To do an exercise well does not mean you are done with the exercise, rather that it’s simply a more effective vessel for approaching whichever limits it is designed to address. 

I use the word threshold here because the experience of such things is often very sudden. It is as if you were walking towards a door of a strange house – there is the approach, which may be short or long, and then quite suddenly you pass through the door to transition from outside to inside and you are in a room you have not seen before.

Occasionally you end up on a completely different planet...

The most basic physical thresholds are created by protective tension, and I have witnessed time and time again people passing these tension thresholds for the first time which is a wonderful sight to behold. Typically it goes something like this: the exercise begins and all is good.  Pretty soon the tension makes itself known; it is working hard and starting to fatigue. Burn, baby, burn! Slowly the feelings of fatigue increase, and the intensity begins to skyrocket. The muscles burn and the blocked points feel like they will sear a mark into the skin. Just when it seems like it’s too much to bare, something relaxes.  A feeling of a burden melting away followed by great relief as the pleasant cool-warm feelings of circulation saturate the previously impenetrable walls of tissue. A look of bewilderment comes over the practitioner as they continue an exercise that was moments ago thought to be impossible to sustain any longer, but now proceeds with ease.

Sometimes the thresholds are passed unknowingly. Shortly before writing this article I was teaching qi gong to a group, and a friend who was participating was talking of pain in his knees that amplified when he did the particular practices. I gently urged him on and in one of the sessions he continued to stand for well over an hour. Afterwards he told me how the pain in his knees was getting quite intense at the beginning but then he got absorbed in the practice (which had the intention on the hands). At some point he had realised that he hadn’t thought about his knees for a while, and when he brought his attention back to them the pain had simply vanished without a trace and he was standing comfortably.

Besides the specific effect of the particular area relaxing or whatever may be the case, this is also a moment where potential bursts wide open. The practitioner now has their own experience of passing a threshold and so it transforms from being a story they heard from me to being the reality of a direct, lived experience. It is a moment where faith (“I don’t know why I’m doing this stupid exercise but Craig said it will work so I better keep going”) can be replaced with a little more certainty. It is also a moment of inspiration for continuing with other challenging practices or pushing into deeper thresholds.

There are non-physical limits that can be passed if approached correctly too. In the Da Xuan tradition we have a fantastic Shen Gong (work of the mind) exercise where you take a simple shape – such as a circle, square or triangle – of a single flat colour and stare at it for 10 minutes or more. There’s not anything more to it than this, no secret that needs to be told. But most beginners have a lot of difficulty with it because it reliably, and often very quickly, exposes them to mental and emotional limits, and they think this means they are somehow doing it incorrectly. On the contrary, it shows that the exercise is working perfectly and all that is needed is the willpower to sustain the exercise until the threshold(s) are passed. Not unlike the physical exercises, the mind or the emotions sometimes get very intense and go completely berserk in lead up and then suddenly calm down once you are beyond.

There is an old saying about it being darkest just before the dawn and the approaching of thresholds is often reflective of this. Of course this means that you actually have to go through the dark bit too and it’s a good idea to go into this with the necessary resources.  Usually the practices are self regulating, meaning that the person will tend to back off approaching the dangerous shadows that precede some of the most wonderful thresholds of their own accord until they are ready. Occasionally there are kamikazes who thirst for an almost suicidal level of intensity in everything they do and so will take this concept and use it to push the limits of this intensity even further. This doesn’t tend to work so well for these people; their important thresholds lie not in the seas of intense sensation, but rather in the currents of gentle, boring exercises that don’t seem to be doing much. You can do plenty of this practice but at some point, to reach a particular depth and pass the thresholds that hold the general populace you will need a Teacher to guide you.

The teacher is also a useful aid in passing long-term thresholds. Many of the short-term thresholds can be passed by doing a daunting and lengthy single practice, but certain long-term thresholds require lengthy exposure to gentle daily practices that are structured in a particular way to go beyond. There are also cases where a threshold can be passed in either the short or long term, and in yet other cases a combination of both is necessary.

Wait, so how much do I need to do again?

If you’ve been reading my work for a while you’ve almost certainly seen my regular recommendation to maintain a daily practice of certain exercises for 30 to 90 uninterrupted days. The point of this is not that there is anything special or specific about these lengths of time, you could very easily do them for a year straight and get wonderful results. The recommendation is simply to suggest a minimum exposure to the exercise that will hopefully be long enough to provoke the passing of a threshold or two. When the practitioner can experience this for themselves they will learn at least part of the value of the practice (and hopefully continue practicing every day after this as a result).

The problem with being too specific is that everyone is a little (or a lot) different in how long it will take. Their history, how well they can maintain attention, what kind of condition their body is in, their willpower and many other factors weave a web that is completely unique for each individual and which makes it more or less impossible to predict how long it might take. I have seen people struggle for more than a year with no signs that anything is approaching and suddenly in a week scores of different thresholds are passed and loads of things fall into place. I have seen slow, steady and predictable progress that just ticks along bit by bit, cruising nicely past a threshold in clear fashion. I have seen complete chaos too, this week seemingly past a threshold, and the next week back before it again, darting all of the place before finally settling beyond. And I have seen all of these express in a single individual depending on the practice they were doing or the time of their life.

Even though there are no guarantees about when it will work, if you approach practicing these exercises with the thresholds in mind you might just find yourself beyond a few in less time than you expect. The secret ingredient here is the sustaining of effort, both in the short term (don’t interrupt your session if you can at all avoid it!) and in the long-term (don’t miss any days, even a small effort of 5-10 minutes can make a huge difference). I remember one of the critical turning points in my practice where I challenged myself to do 30 minutes of practice every day for 300 days straight. Although on many of these days I only managed 10 minutes, as I progressed through it and continued on afterwards many changes that I expected to be years or decades away had already occured within a few months, and many that I thought were impossible pipe dreams only reserved for the lucky few were now my lived reality after only a year or two.

What might be possible if this effort is sustained for 10 or 20 years or longer?  Only one way to find out…

"The Way that can be talked about is not the real thing so you have to stop talking about it and do the practice for yourself to find out"**

Personal Resources

I think it’s safe to say that everyone understands and has had their own experience of energy at the very least in the general sense.  I’m talking about feeling energetic, as in being alert and ready to do a lot of things whether they are physical or mental. On the flip side you have the feeling of being completely exhausted and not being able to do lots of things.  We are an organism that is in need of fuel to function; personal resources that need to be regularly topped up. Even though it might seem reasonably obvious, it is useful to look a little closer at how these resources are replenished and also very importantly how they are spent – after all, they are all we have to get through life with.

When you look closely at this process you can see that what is going on is really quite magical: we fuel ourselves by taking something that isn’t us, bringing it inside us and then transforming it to something that is us. This also works in the opposite way, we take parts of us that are no longer needed and send them out into the world so they can be used by the other in some way. This exchange is at the very foundation of all of life.

While there are plenty of more subtle ways we go about doing this, like absorbing sunlight and other environmental energies (there are practices to improve these in the Da Xuan tradition, by the way!), today I want to look at the primary three fuels. We have the food that we eat, the liquids that we drink and the air that we breathe. 

Food and drink are both pretty straight forward. There are plenty of contradicting ideas about it that you can study and try for yourself so I won’t talk too much about it here, but it’s worth understanding that we need to use some energy to digest and assimilate the food. This process can be improved with diets and practises that assist with digestion, but at some point there is only so much you can transform at any given point in time – after all it’s not like you can just eat more to have more energy. Everyone would be familiar with the food coma, when you’ve eaten so much that the body needs to draw on more than the usual amount of resources to process it and so you have to power down until that’s done. We can see here that the potential for increasing energy just by your diet is fairly limited (although can still be quite dramatic if you have a really poor diet).

Breathing, on the other hand, is a wonderfully untapped resource. The average breath taken by a regular city dweller is about 0.5L. This can easily be increased by two to four fold with some basic breathing practices. We can also (with practice) dramatically improve how effectively the breath is assimilated, so we can take more in and make better use of that which is taken in. In my own experience I have already taken this far beyond what I imagined was possible. This change has been so vivid that I’m no longer really sure what the upper limits of possibilities are, especially if it keeps growing as it has since the beginning.

At any rate, it’s certainly possible to increase our incoming resources quite substantially with breathing practices.  But we can also look at how we spend them and where it might be possible to free up resources that are being used poorly or unnecessarily. I’ll start with the obvious – the body.  We need energy to move our body and run all the organic functions. Exercise is a wonderful way to make us breathe more than usual and also increase the circulation (improving delivery and assimilation of resources to the various corners of the body) and so tends to make a lot of energy for us, but it also spends a decent amount getting the job done. Physical work can be done any old way and it will pretty much work the same each time: if you do too much you’ll be more exhausted than when you started, too little won’t add enough to the tank, and just right will leave you feeling vibrant and energised. There’s a sweet spot for the intensity of practice that with experience you can start to hit on the regular and this is a nice thing to find. In our school we are given the guideline of trying to get to a light sweat and about a 70% perceived rate of work each day, which is basically a complicated way of saying hit the sweet spot with your daily practice.

From the perspective of the personal resources, a great deal of fuel is spent maintaining protective tension in the body. This cost is MASSIVE. It is typically hidden but certain practices can work to simultaneously reveal and relax the tension and restore strength (and circulation) to the areas being protected so they can function for themselves once more. When this can be achieved at the same time as hitting the previously mentioned sweet spot of intensity you start to get a cumulative effect – energy being gained from the physical work stacked on top of energy being freed from fueling unneeded tension. The more resources that are gathered, the more that become available for the restoration and so the better that process works and so on it goes in a feedback loop that is ever increasing. This is essentially what we are developing with the basic hands practice of Da Xuan and other jibengong.

There is also a global physical work that can be undertaken. This is practicing to have the whole body coordinate as an integrated unit, a single united effort where no part is going against the other. Playing a big role once more is the resolution of protective tension, for this kind of tension is always going against any tension required for a given movement. It is also a matter of developing the concept of many hands make light work for the muscles and other soft tissues. Freeing up the spend of resources that goes into opposing whatever it is you are doing is an extremely worthwhile task that can be forever refined and thus is another potential for liberating fuel that can be used for more interesting tasks than hampering our own efforts.

Once we move into the arena of mind and emotions we have a whole new order of potential for freeing up unnecessary usage. I won’t delve too deeply into the topic of emotions for now, it’s quite a minefield and not particularly useful to talk about much. I will say that negative emotions require a significant amount of energy to digest and if that energy is not available it can often lead to plenty of problems.

The mind presents some very interesting possibilities. Cognition of all kinds (thinking, accessing memory, focus, intention, concentration, fabrication of ideas and so on) generally consumes an enormous quantity of energy. This is obvious to anyone who has tried to do any of these things while they are exhausted – it’s pretty much impossible. There is also the layer of maintaining belief structures. These tend to be with us our whole lives until by way of practice (or occasionally blind luck) we are suddenly unburdened by them. Anyone who has been through such a thing can attest to the huge release of effort and subsequent feeling of relief that comes from freeing yourself of things you didn’t even know were weighing you down.

You don't really need to carry all this excess baggage around everywhere

When we use this perspective to look at what our practices are doing we can see a few things.  Firstly we see that there is quite a distinct difference between breathing practices, which will add to our energy reserves, and practices of concentration, focus, imagination and other mental activities which will reduce them. Certain mental practices can lead to the destruction of belief structures or a calmer mind which can reduce the spend in amazing ways, freeing energy you already had to be used elsewhere but never adding to the energy reserves. Learning to relax the mind means that we don’t have to spend valuable resources constantly reorienting it back to the task at hand or creating unnecessary chains of thoughts or projections of images or anything else. It’s not increasing your pay packet, but rather decreasing how much of your pay packet you spend on useless things. You might be surprised how much you really have spare!

With this perspective we can start to make sense of the general structure of practice used in the Da Xuan tradition. In one way you could see the beginning years of practice as sorting out your personal resources.  We separate the practices of the mind, breath and body because they achieve different things. With the practices of the mind we work on getting to know our mind, how it operates, and how to keep it focused on specific tasks for long periods of time or simply teach it to relax when thinking isn’t needed.  Anyone who’s looked into this for any amount of time can understand that this is a lot like training a hyperactive puppy. While the result is a relaxed mind that can focus properly and is generally available with ever more resources being liberated, the process can often be exhausting. We are purposefully spending our resources to achieve a more efficient and effective mind-state that doesn’t use so much fuel.

Breathing practices are intended towards improving intake and assimilation.  How can we add the most resources while spending the least. Essentially we want the mind and body doing as little as possible. This is hard enough to do on its own, to train it simultaneously with the focus practices of the mind and/or postural practices of the body is going to be an incredibly difficult if not impossible affair for the beginner. When we separate these practices we create feedback loops that work off each other. Training the body to be coordinated and free of excess tension liberates resources. Alignment and grounding help us to keep the body still for long periods of time without needing to spend much holding us upright. This in turn helps us do our breathing and mental practices without interference or unnecessary spending. Learning to relax the mind helps us maintain a relaxed focus in our breathing and bodily practices, which makes each of those practices more effective. Breathing without spending creates more resources to be used for training the body and mind – and on it goes.

Powering up with practices from Da Xuan

You can see here that this model of practice creates an exponential possibility for increasing our personal resources. At some point in the practice, we begin to go into excess. We have more than enough fuel to operate in life and deal with every and any challenge that might arise, we are not spending our fuel on fighting ourselves, and so the resources we add with our practice then begin to accumulate.  Challenges only become problems when we are short on the resources to deal with them. Trying to solve a simple maths problem or digest an offhand remark that someone made about you is easy when you are full of energy. Even if you can’t find a solution to a given challenge it’s not really a problem – it becomes water off the duck’s back so to speak. But encounter the same challenges when you’re exhausted and suddenly the same small remarks become a huge deal, we have trouble completing simple tasks and it can all eventually lead to a melt down.

This alone is reason enough to practice in this way, however when we go into a large excess we start to be able to use it to transform ourselves in ways that are not possible otherwise. We can digest bigger shocks and so face aspects of ourselves and our world that are otherwise difficult to face without being driven to a breakdown or burrowing into deeper denial. In our tradition we say that we want to be happy first and only then do we face reality. In my experience, happiness doesn’t come from removing challenges in our lives but from having the resources to confront them completely. When we don’t have enough resources to confront a challenge completely, it’s as if our organism knows and so works to quarantine the problem (physical, emotional, mental) until such time as we have enough spare fuel to face it again.

You can probably imagine how this would stack up over a lifetime of increasing stress and avoiding of challenges. We are living in a time where the cultural body values comfort and ease, finding every possibility to go away from the challenges of life and towards convenience or feigned happiness. Much of our technology is based around getting a machine or tool to solve problems for us. We have become the masters of avoiding the struggles of life, but in doing so we have robbed ourselves of the very thing that makes us grow. It’s not that we have to throw away everything we’ve made. But perhaps now it is time we stop running, gather our energy, and use our vitality to turn and face the world fully, both the good and the bad, so that we may feel our ever growing aliveness once more.

From Dense to Sparse and Back

In Da Xuan we have this idea of grounding ourselves.  Being good Daoists who like balance, we not only like to improve the kind of emotional and mental grounding of someone who is ‘down to earth’, but we also develop a very physical grounding.  This literally means being difficult to move from our physical position; that we can’t be pushed over. As well as being balanced, the Daoists were always a pragmatic people. It’s no use to just know about it or think about it, you must practice so you can be it. I was always partial to my Teacher’s personal interpretation of the first line of the Dao De Jing:

“The Dao that can be talked about is not the actual Dao, so you may as well shut up and practice.”
~ Serge Augier

Although the practices we use to achieve good grounding are pretty universal, it’s useful to understand that different people will find different benefits from improving it depending on where one is starting from. There are plenty of frameworks for categorizing the various makeups people have – some are far more useful than others, too – but today I want to talk about something particular so I’m going to use a very simplified model.  Please excuse the over-generalization; my words are an attempt to point to something rather than convey an absolute truth.

I want to look at this from the perspective of the density of the person. At one end of the spectrum you have those who are very solid in their makeup. On the other extreme you have those who are sparse or porous. Another way to think of this spectrum is that the borders between what the individual considers ‘self’ and ‘other’ range from a heavily defended, impossible to penetrate border all the way to not at all protected in any way. Of course this is a spectrum so people exist in between the extremes but in my personal observation it seems that the distribution looks something like an inverted bell curve, with people gathered mostly towards either end, and only very few existing in a nice balance without any practice.

A fake chart but you get the idea

I’ll start with the solid end of the spectrum first as it’s where I naturally abide and so I’m personally familiar with it. Having been involved in the internal martial arts, qi gong and spiritual circles for quite some time, I am often around people who would talk of feeling energies, emotions of other people and so on. Until recently I would usually just nod and smile and go along with whatever was being said about the topic, while in my own experience I was not feeling anything of the kind. After more than a decade of practice I had come to the conclusion that the people who talked about this stuff were simply fantasizing or projecting.  When you’re super solid and dense naturally, it is really, really difficult to let anything in or out. So I wasn’t able to feel these strange energies that other people talked about (or much else really) but I also tended to bottle up my emotions and other aspects of personal expression.  It really was a case of nothing in, nothing out, and I wrongly assumed that nothing other than this was possible.

The positive side of being like this is it makes for an extraordinary resilience and adaptability. I have fond memories of going on retreat in the bush with Simon and my other friends and hearing everyone regularly talking about the period of recovery following the retreat and returning to city. I never understood this. From my perspective, you just went back to the city and life continued. Where was the need to recover? Being in the forest or being in the city was much the same for me. Either way my borders were well protected and my internal state was for the most part generally pretty good. So I had no problems. The same with being in big crowds or around people who are having difficult times. I was never bothered by any of these situations and could exist in a happily ignorant state in basically any situation. My shields were always set to maximum and so I was fine.

I was going to put a different picture here but then I found this - perfect!

The con is that it always made a distance between me and everyone and everything else. I was kind of isolated by myself and so unable to be really intimate and vulnerable in any given situation. I definitely learned how to act like this, but it was never quite the real thing.  Intellectual understanding of a situation and actual empathy with a situation or person are two entirely different things.

I didn’t consciously choose to be like this, it’s just how I was.  I actually didn’t know how to open up and allow things to come in or go out. For a long time I didn’t even know that it was a possibility or what it might mean to do such a thing. Luckily, I found the Da Xuan tradition (as well as receiving much needed guidance from close friends and other teachers) and even though it is slow going, I am beginning to perceive some very wonderful realms of life that I was previously unaware of.

But enough about me.  Let’s now go to the polar opposite end of the spectrum.  Here you have people that are open and somewhat hyper sensitive to various aspects of the other. These people are so porous that basically anything can come in and anything can leave. They can be regularly under assault from other people’s emotional states – often having no choice but to help the other to digest these emotions – and probably on the receiving end of various imagery, auditory and felt phenomenon coming from their own unconscious as well as the collective unconscious. It is also usually the case that their own emotions just explode out somewhat chaotically and regularly. In the most extreme cases they can be almost completely at the mercy of any given situation and just get dragged around this way and that without much choice in the matter.

Again there are pros and cons to being of this makeup. These people tend to be very warm, emotionally available and kind hearted when they aren’t being thrashed too much by the other. They can probably do a single qigong class and have experiences of energetics that all the solid people are secretly wishing they could have. Or they might have some strange latent or available empathetic capacities that lets them be quite intimate in some really wonderful moments.

The problem here is that it leaves just as easily as it shows up.  Even though many interesting energies are felt often, there is no mechanism for keeping what is felt inside the borders of your self. Easy come, easy go.  Without proper practice there is limited capacity to store and so things don’t grow. It’s not planted in something substantial so at best the things that are felt work like nice shower. In a more general sense, the previously mentioned wonderfully intimate situations can easily be replaced with serious horror in an instant.

Ruh roh!

At some point this spectrum of density became obvious to me. As I continue practicing I am slowly able to access more porous states and I am learning how to open up to some of the subtle experiences of life. As a result I became more empathetic, or at least sympathetic, to the plight of the very porous. Of course they are the way they are; a little bit strange and often unstable in the extreme cases.  I would be too if I had to deal with the constant barrage of things they have had to without any defenses. Being regularly told they are crazy by those more solid than them would not help the situation. The entirety of the western culture is still quite dense at this point in time so most of these people have to pretend like they aren’t having the experiences they are having, or move to Byron Bay to hang out with others who are like them. And just like the solid people, they don’t get much say in the matter of what their natural makeup will be.

Unfortunately, no amount of insisting from either end that the other stops being the way they are naturally made and be more like them will actually accomplish anything. It’s not a matter of just being told to be more open or to “harden up” because as I mentioned, we just simply do not know how to do it. A little bit of understanding of the other end’s situation will certainly go a fair way towards reducing confusion, but at some point action has to be taken.  Something has to be done. Practice has to be done. And not just once off, it needs to be done consistently for years to get any substantial results.

This is where the practice of grounding comes into view, in particular the physical grounding. In Da Xuan we have about a gazillion different ways of developing the grounding. It’s a fundamental quality that basically everything else in the school relies on. One of the most basic practices is where you get a partner to try push or pull you over and you do your best to hold your ground and not move. It’s a simple practice but rich in depth and gives you a very honest understanding of where your grounding is in actuality. My first experience with this exercise was quite a shock. Even after over a decade of practice in other systems, this simple test showed me a harsh truth: that I was not at all grounded in any way. Thankfully it shocked me into action and I have been practicing ever since, improving bit by bit.

The interesting thing here is what being more physically grounded can do for both ends of the spectrum. In the more solid people I’ve seen, it can really help to soften them.  When you are physically immovable you are a lot more agreeable to dropping the emotional guard, to lowering the shields so to speak. More often than not I see that the very solid are not aware that they are existing in a permanently guarded state. For this to come into awareness and then soften considerably is simultaneously a pleasant surprise and shock, both for yourself and those around you. Personally I feel that grounding is one of the critical practices (but not the only one) necessary for the naturally solid individuals who want to open up and experience the various subtle energies of the world. And it can help to become far more intimate and caring in many ways that are not understandable when bound constantly by an extremely dense state.

For the porous it will build a solid foundation and strength that is completely reliable in chaotic times. It’s a way of holding your ground, quite literally, so you no longer have to be dragged this way and that (unless you want to be).  It will build qualities of resilience and firmness that will help many things stabilize and then flourish. It also helps you to remove and protect yourself from the internal business of others. It is not always useful to be mixed up in other people’s emotional states, especially if you are unstable, even if your intention is to help. It can be irritating to the other in some cases or simply an overspend of your own resources which could be more usefully directed towards yourself. When you are firmly grounded you can use these natural capacities to help in a really meaningful way when it’s needed and wanted, and to withdraw when it’s not necessary. Crowds and other people having a bad day will become far less of a problem for you.

It may appear at this point that what I’m talking about is making the porous more solid and the solid more porous. This is part of the equation for sure – but not all of it. We want to be careful here not to throw the baby out with the bath water. It’s not trading one for the other, it’s not ‘instead of’ but rather ‘as well as’. We want to balance ourselves by keeping that which we are already naturally inclined towards, and developing that which we are not. But we’re still not done, we need the final piece. It is useful to be able to access both ends of the spectrum, but then we need to literally ground the whole thing in physical reality.

So often do people only see the benefits of the other end and not the problems, and in the same instance only see the problems of their end and not the benefits. On the flip side there are those who believe that their end is the only correct way to exist and people on the other end be damned. Attempting to swing completely to the other side doesn’t usually turn out so well, nor does holding fast to one end exclusively. Each extreme has it’s benefits and problems as we’ve seen and the grounding helps us to understand this and stabilize it all.

It’s like standing on one end of a see-saw then running to the other end only to have it tip down on that side instead. Grounding means to walk to the middle and have one foot on either side of the fulcrum where you can keep it balanced or tip it either way as you like. You can’t turn one end up without very viscerally knowing that the other is going down.

There are plenty of exceptions to these generalizations. I have personally met all kinds of people who have qualities of both but lack grounding, or have managed to ground themselves physically very strongly but still have plenty of armouring on various parts of their being, or have one aspect of themselves incredibly porous and another completely locked down and solid. It’s not terribly important nor is it useful to ponder endlessly about the possibilities. This is a very simple abstract model after all, and no substitute for reality. In fact a model never can be final. As the great poet Walt Whitman observed – we are vast, and contain contradicting multitudes.

Nevertheless, I enjoy using such simple frameworks because of how easily they can be put to practical use in the ordinary parts of our life. The first thing that we can take away from understanding this model is that other people may not be having quite the same experiences as we are and as a result both parties can find it difficult to relate (naturally). When we can have a clear and direct personal experience of ‘the other end’ it can really help us be not so quick to judgement. The second, and probably more important, is that something actually has to be done to remedy or at least buffer for the various problems presented throughout the spectrum. Perhaps it’s finally time to getting around to doing these things. It is not easy, but it is simple and certainly a worthwhile endeavour. Experience of something that is not natural to you is something that can only come with practice, naturally.

It is very important that such frameworks should not be taken on face value and need to be put to the test. The first port of call is to look into whether or not my ramblings (or anyone else’s for that matter) can actually be used coherently, and whether they achieve what they suggest can be achieved, if anything.  The only way to know for sure is to try for yourself. Has this idea actually helped you change something meaningful in your life or has it just lent more ammunition to cast judgement? A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing and to take ideas such as the one I have outlined here only at an intellectual level runs a heavy risk of turning against the knower. One can quite easily fall into the trap of using new ideas to silently berate all those that do not know them.

“Many people wish to see themselves as pink angels with blue wings, walking among the unfortunate, spreading light and love.  It is a revelation to find that you are one of the unfortunates. Great effort is needed to produce this insight, making it possible to change your pattern and begin to feel the gratitude within. It is only when a man is grateful for seeing what he is not that he can change.” 
~Swami Rudrananda

It is also important to understand that if the framework is not useful to you, it should just be discarded. You may simply not care how solid or sparse you are or what else may be possible or you may feel very strongly about sticking with and developing yourself where ever you naturally stand. This is fine by me, however it does mean that this article and idea isn’t really meant for you. Apologies for making you read this far to find that out 😉

Who it is meant for are those who may have knowingly or unknowingly been struggling with understanding this aspect of themselves or others; for those who are simply curious about experiencing a broader slice of their reality without running the risk of disconnecting from reality; or for the many teachers of personal development who might read this and hopefully find a way to help their students with more clarity.

Whatever the case, I hope that it spurs you into some kind of doing or investigation that will lead to broader horizons…

Opening the Potential

Over the many years I have been training and teaching I have regularly observed a phenomenon that I would probably call “being a try-hard” if it were still the mid-90s. But it’s 2018 so it’s probably more prudent to call it something like over-trying. It is the act of pressuring one’s self to produce results that we are not yet capable of, which in an ironic twist actually prevents them from appearing. It is a kind of psychic desperation that brings along an incredible tension. You can see how this would not work so well when you are doing practices that are designed to relieve tension and inhibition rather than building on them.

Being myself a chronic victim of over-trying, I had to find a way to untangle this knot so as not to spend too many (more) years spinning my wheels. I also teach other people and part of that job is to find a way to present the teachings that doesn’t tangle the student up in that desperation but does keep them moving ahead to the next step. It is a puzzling task because on one hand if there is no effort at all there is no movement to the next stage, and on the other if there is too much effort it will knot everything up and bring about stagnation in practice. For a teacher this means knowing when and what to cue and when to leave it knowing that adding anything else will just confuse the student further. But the student has a role to play here too. I suspect solving this conundrum itself will be one of the stages that almost everyone has to progress through at some point in their practice so I thought that sharing some of my current insights into this koan may prove useful.

What has worked quite well for me and my students is a concept that I call opening the potential. It is an attitude we bring to our practice where instead of making an effort to make the change happen, we instead make an effort to create the potential for it to happen. It’s a small but important change in how we orient ourselves.

Allow me to beat a metaphor to death to explain the idea in more depth. Imagine you are interested in seeing the greatest performer of all time on stage, but you don’t know where the performer is or how to contact them or even who they are or what they can do. You devise a plan to create your own stage in the hopes it will attract the performer. Every day you set your stage up in the best way that your resources will allow you, and you put a little sign out front encouraging people to bring their greatest performances. The beginning is slow, but eventually a passing hobo sees the stage with the sign you have put up and jumps up to perform. It’s not that great but it’s a start. You continue setting your stage each day. Some days no one comes by. Slowly but surely the word gets out, and as you get better at setting your stage you attract more interesting performers. You begin to notice which things the interesting performers prefer to have on stage and which things are no good. You change your stage, alter it here and there. Better and better performers appear. You still have your quiet days where no one comes along but you set the stage up anyway just in case. Sometimes these quiet days run back to back. Where are all the performers? You have no clue but you keep at it anyway. After some years your experience of how to set the stage has grown considerably, it is slowly becoming quite a remarkable stage. At one point a performer arrives and delivers a performance the likes of which you have never seen! Was that it?!? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. You continue setting the stage, never quite sure if the next performer will be even more impressive and interesting than the last, all the while progressively making the stage more and more suitable for the most amazing performances. As the years pass the performers that grace the stage are far beyond the first dazzling performance that you originally thought was the best. You also still get your fair share of hobos and quiet days, but you set the stage anyways just because you enjoy setting it up and seeing what comes of it.

I hope this little story paints some kind of picture of what I mean. To open the potential means to set the stage (which is your practice) in the best way you know how and then not being too concerned with who appears or doesn’t appear (the results of the practice). It’s an attitude of using the practice as a means of keeping the aperture of potential open and progressively widening it rather than worrying about making the potential manifest or how it will. To stop practice would mean to reduce the potential to almost nil. To use the practice to force the potential to manifest is also an uphill battle at best (and an extreme waste of energy that results in nothing at worst).

The effort is more usefully directed at maintaining and improving the potential with whatever resources you happen to have available on that day. In my Daoist tradition we say that we must balance the technical corrections with a playful approach of just doing the practice without correction. To go back to my metaphor, to me this means that we spend a bit of time each day setting our stage but at some point we have to accept that it’s about as set as it’s going to get on that day and allow whichever acts some space to actually do their thing (or not). Too much time in the technical adjustments brings about a kind of neuroticism. Too little effort and very little will happen. It’s a fine line to walk!

Of course it’s useful to understand how to set the stage and which things work and why. It is here that a teacher and tradition can be invaluable. They are the guides who draw on vast experience to help you along your way, guide you towards other possibilities and stop you from going down dead ends. A good teacher and tradition will also allow room for and even encourage your individuality and the possibility of you bringing something new that was not previously known.

This way of approaching a practice hints at a practical expression of the emptiness and mystery talked about in many spiritual traditions too. When you leave the potential open like this you leave room for the possibility of things not yet known to appear, or for things that you thought would happen in one way to happen in another. If you do this for long enough something may occur that might just blow your mind wide open. Or it may not. That’s the quality of mystery – you really never know and never can know. What you can be sure of is that if you try to force the results every day that you might get that result or you might not, but it’s very unlikely that anything else will come about. To put the final nail in the coffin of my metaphor, it’s something like assuming you know what the performance will be like before it happens and then only booking your stage out to the one performer you saw that kind of looked like your assumption. This is a sure way to stifle the potential of the unknown.

What we end up with when we keep our efforts on the potential rather than the manifestations is a practice that is both very relaxed and always growing. Every day presents an opportunity to do our practice in a way that’s a little more informed by experience than the last, and a little closer to an ideal that can never be reached – after all, how do you prepare for that which you do not know is coming? Even so, we can still relax in the feeling of knowing that we did what we could in the best way we knew how on any given day. Whether the mysterious and wondrous results of the practice show up that day is not at all up to us. And who knows, maybe the hobo is hiding something quite magnificent under the mundane outward appearance after all and you just had to watch him for the 300th time to catch it! 😉

Listening to the Sounds of Sensation

We live in a demanding time and culture.  I don’t mean demanding as in “difficult for us”, although that is quite true as well, but rather I mean to say that we are constantly demanding that things be a certain way. Another way to put this is that we like to impose our ideas upon basically every aspect of the world. I could very easily launch into commentary and analysis of our culture here but that has been done to death already and I’m much more interested in a more immediate, intimate piece of the world that we can actually affect the relationship of in a serious way: our bodies.

I speak here both from my own experience with my body and from observing how I see the vast majority of others relate to their bodies. I spent a great deal of my own practice history making quite significant demands of my body and imposing particular ideas of how my mind wanted my body to be (as well as doing the same thing to my mind, but that is a whole other story!).  For a long time I was almost constantly insisting that it be a particular way – stronger, more flexible, more supple, more coordinated, less painful, and so on. The list of demands were quite endless and as soon as something was achieved, several more things would be added to the list. This is quite a typical relationship those in the realms of performance and well-being have with their body from what I have observed.

On the other side of this spectrum are those who appear to simply want their body to be quiet already and leave them in peace. It is a situation not unlike someone getting a pet dog, completely ignoring it, and then wondering why it spends the majority of its time howling, whining or barking. Attempts to pacify the cries may lead to a short period of silence but will ultimately lead to more and more outbursts. The only difference here is we didn’t have a choice about getting a body.

Whether we like it or not we are all in a relationship with our bodies and our minds. We can allow the strange ideas of our mind to whip the body into whichever shape or state is currently ‘most-desirable’, and turn the body into an excellent servant that will obey our every command. But the mind’s attention span is short and it is never satisfied for long, so this approach ultimately leaves one in a permanent state of chasing phantoms. From a performance perspective this quite clearly can and does work, as a cursory glance at those around us will show. One may even say it’s necessary if you want to be competitive. But I am not interested in relationships of slavery, even if it means the world’s best performance.

Instead I opted to learn the language of the body: sensation. Like learning any language, it was (and still is) quite a mammoth task – think months and years rather than days and weeks. Sensations are not quite as clear cut as words are in their meaning and the body is not really governed by the logic, reason and rationale that the mind operates under. In the beginning there wasn’t much to work with. There seemed to only be 2 sensations: the normal, neutral body (good!) or intense sensation that was generally labelled ‘pain’ (bad!).

Practice began to reveal something wonderful, however.  An entire spectrum of sensations are becoming ever-more apparent, ranging from the most subtle to the most super intense. And very slowly it became clear that just because a sensation was extremely subtle did not necessarily mean it was a good sensation, and just because a sensation was extraordinarily intense did not mean it was bad. On the contrary, some of the most severe warnings came through in a very subtle way and some of the loudest most intense sensations amounted to something like the body shouting for joy and wanting to keep going. Very few of the multitude of sensations actually implied immediate danger.

With practice I am becoming more and more proficient in understanding the sensations of my body and what they mean. But the mind is very tricksy, as gollum would say. In a subtle subterfuge, it began using this new capacity to speak the bodies language to order the body about in a more efficient way and continue imposing its will. Learning the language of the body was only half of the puzzle it would seem.

The other half, and perhaps the more important half, was learning how to listen. A body, especially a neglected body, has a whole host of its own requests and needs. Needs that are often vastly different to those imagined by the mind. Listening does not mean the mind is waiting for its turn to impose nor does it necessarily mean offering up solutions to whatever is ‘said’. Sometimes, often, the body just needs to have the sensations be allowed into full awareness. Awareness through and through, without the mind trying to solve them like some kind of puzzle – not unlike how a good counsellor genuinely listens to their patient’s recount of tragedy and suffering. You may be surprised what lies at the eye of the storm when the body is giving all kinds of intense and painful sensations, if only you would pay close attention to it instead of scrambling for any way to make it stop.

This is skillful ground to navigate and the mind will often find ways to lay an agenda subtly underneath whatever is going on. “If I just listen long enough, this sensation of pain might go away” or “if I get good enough at listening than I can finally perform that skill that I always wanted”. The reality is that listening often means sacrifice and not getting what the mind wanted.  Maybe the body doesn’t actually want to have anything to do with whatever particular performance the mind is interested in, and maybe it never will want anything to do with that. Perhaps that pain is there simply as a request to be heard and has nothing to do with any kind of physical damage.

Most of the exercises I make use of in my teachings are essentially ways of giving certain, often long-forgotten areas of the body a stage and a loudspeaker. This offers two opportunities. One is to learn what all the vast array of sensations that may come forth mean and the other is an opportunity to simply listen. One of the most common questions I get asked is how long should a certain exercise be done for and I can feel the person just waiting for some more ammunition of imposition; another shiny new way of telling the body how to go about bodying. The actual answer is “as long as the body wants to do it for” – anything else would be to go against the point entirely. And if you really pay attention and listen, the body will very obviously tell you when it’s done with a particular practice. Of course in the beginning we do not understand the language of the body so we throw an arbitrary number at the mind to keep it satiated while the body gets its chance to be front and centre for once.

It is amusing to watch mind struggle with the intense sensations that the body is actually revelling in. There’s no need to find this in other people either, watching your own mind is plenty enough entertainment for a lifetime. Go to the proper depth in a stretch and the mind almost immediately pipes up: “Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, NOPE. WE ARE CERTAINLY GOING TO DIE IF WE STAY HERE FOR ONE SECOND LONGER”.  But tune into the bodily sensations and it becomes apparent that a great shift and unravelling is occuring which the body is very much liking despite its intensity. Also you don’t die, so there’s that little hiccup in the story of the mind. It is similar with Jibengong; an intensity arrives almost immediately in many exercises that the mind wants nothing to do with but the body is quite enjoying and very capable of proceeding for a long time before it will stop. The gap between the mind giving up and the body wanting to stop is more like a ginormous chasm.

On the flip side you have the situation of many exercises (probably most of the exercises I teach, to be honest) being really boring for the mind. But the body is interested and wanting to pursue them in depth. Boredom itself is only ever a state of mind, it is not something the body knows in any way.

You’ve probably heard both Dave and I say this with a lot of our respective work: it’s not really about what you are doing but rather how. We have regularly used the term ‘Repatterning to describe the difference between our approaches and regular physical practices. I might be so brave to suggest that at the core of these differences is the act of imposing upon the body in regular physical training versus that of listening to the body in Physical Repatterning Work. You could very easily adopt an attitude of listening amidst strength training, gymnastics, parkour or anything else.  And you could just as easily do Jibengong or partner stretching with an attitude of imposition and go for years without understanding this point at all.

It’s not that we never want to impose upon the body ever again, but rather we are aiming to repair the harmony of the relationship between the mind and the body.  The body actually starts to become happy when this relationship becomes more of a two way street, and will also be more inclined to help out the mind when it is in need too. This happiness presents itself as a wonderful song of sensations that will sing you through the day if you so let it – and warn you of possible problems approaching well in advance of their actualization, if you are indeed listening.

The body will also begin to exhibit an intelligence that is completely beyond the understanding of the reasonable and rational mind. Why and how are really not in the repertoire of the body and many things can be done without reason or rationality, simply because that’s the way they should be done. This physical intuition can appear on many levels. In my experience I am often struck with an impression that the body wants to do things in a particular way. It is an urge that appears without thought or an idea behind it. If someone were to ask me why I did that particular thing, the only honest answer I could give is “I don’t know”, or at a stretch “my body wanted to” (although this essentially amounts to the mind trying to act like it has any idea about what went on). Of course in retrospect it becomes clear that these bodily actions have a tangible and sometimes extraordinary effect that would have not been possible with the mind taking the lead.

What happens with time and experience is that the body shifts from being a slave to being an extraordinarily reliable friend, one with which you share a most intimate trust. This trust goes both ways and the body also begins to trust the wild and wacky ideas of the mind which, as you can imagine, starts to make life a whole lot more colourful.

It’s not terribly complex to begin to practice with this approach if it’s something that takes your fancy. Of course it’s generally a better idea to engage in it using a system that is specifically oriented for such things (I take online students and have video tutorials by the way ;)). But for the most part all it needs is a willingness to actually go into your practice honestly. Drop every idea you have about how you think it’s meant to be, or what other people think of what you’re doing and you’ll be doing just fine – listening to ideas means you are not listening to the body. Oh, and relax about it all.  There’s no sense in forcing a relationship to be immediately fruitful. Forcing it works in this situation about as well as forcing relationships with other people does (i.e. it doesn’t work at all). Take your time, slow down, and enjoy the process of rediscovering a long forgotten friend!