Archive for meditation

Fangsong 4eva

Posted in Exercise, Fighting, health, martial arts, meditation, New Age Baloney, Qi, tai chi, taijiquan with tags , , , , , on August 12, 2009 by wizardsmoke

I’ve been busy and haven’t had much I care to write about lately. Society has had its way with me. But I have been practicing a lot of Taijiquan (TJQ). That’s the only thing in life that doesn’t seem like a complete waste of time — it levels up the soul as well as the physical body all at once.

The principle you hear superior TJQ bloggers talk about these days is maximum use of relaxation, specifically the Chinese term fang-song. The principle of using the waist efficiently in movements (“waist is the commander”) is the core of most martial arts; pretty much every martial art does that at advanced levels. But in TJQ and “internal” martial arts, the key unique principle or secret above all else, is total softness and the ability to relax muscle while fighting.

But even if you don’t practice TJQ or any other macho head-games, fang-song is a beautiful concept to work with. It literally means a combination of “relax” and “unclench the muscles”. It’s pretty much the idea that all meditation teachers are trying to point to, but don’t usually have the vocabulary or practice methods to elucidate. Whenever I am sitting somewhere with nothing to do, or lying in bed drifting off to sleep, I just fang-song my whole body. Sure, sure, you could sit and “be mindful of the breath,” but a lot of people do that without taking heed of their levels of tension. Fang-song is a lot like meditation-class body-scanning-for-tension, but it’s a method that was developed to also function when confronting extreme violence or threats to one’s life.

Most tension starts when the back isn’t straight, and immediately ripples to the shoulders and hips. When the shoulders and hip joints are tense, there is a parallel effect on the elbows and knees respectively. The other big issue is the verticality of the spine, which is a whole additional TJQ principle in of itself (all the principles are co-dependent upon one another). Ideally, one wants to tuck the coccyx until the whole spine, from the bottom (or top of the ass), up to the neck, is one straight line (as when viewed from the side).

It’s also very important to unclench jaw and facial muscles. The reason to wear sunglasses in on bright days is to keep your face from scrunching up and becoming incredibly tense. Excess jaw and facial tension can lead to migraines, headaches and other kinds of annoying pains. Shoulder tension can do this too, and practicing TJQ-related fang-song is practically a miracle cure for chronic back pain, myofascial muscle issues, etc.

As far as qi and issuing energy goes — without total relaxation, the amount of qi a person can circulate and issue in strikes is pretty minimal. I’m not entirely sure what the energy programming instructions are in external, muscular styles like Karate, Shaolin, Silat and so on, but in TJQ and internal styles, it’s the total relaxation which gives you the qi explosion. A lot of beginners are always interested in qi circulation and bringing it out in striking energy, but once you get somewhere in practice, you realize the qi naturally appears and soaks into everything when you relax really deeply.

Anyway, I have a feeling that Taijiquan will get super big in a martial way soon, right before the world implodes. Considering that there are a large number of MA teachers pitching TJQ efficiently now, I don’t see how it could go any other way. Especially since TJQ is the best.

But what difference does it make if TJQ becomes commercially popular in a martial way? Is that really better than the current trend of it being popular as a New Age healing tonic? I guess I don’t care either way.

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Headroom

Posted in health, meditation, New Age Baloney, Technology with tags , , , , , on April 2, 2009 by wizardsmoke

What is the point of “clearing the mind” — whether it be via meditation, seclusion, practicing a hobby, or any other method?

In audio engineering, there is a concept called headroom, which refers to the amount of audio space a recording, or audio wave, has before it clips or distorts. Each element added to a musical recording, every ingredient, every track of instrumentation, effects and chains — they all add to the recording and eat away at that precious overhead. The skill of good audio engineers and mastering engineers is capturing a fantastic sound and fitting it clearly into the right amount of audio “space” while still maintaining some overhead. They are able to do this through consistent practice, and by paying careful attention to every step of the recording process.

This is similar to what we are preserving when we attempt to clear our heads, relax and maintain good health removed from emotional binds. A while back, I pointed out a literary illustration Doug Wilson, from the Henka blog, used regarding his martial arts experience. When we train, we’re creating space in the mind, in which we can move freely, regardless of our physical position. The less space we have in the mind, the more attached and controlled we are by our everyday surroundings, circumstances, relationships, and emotions.

When we run out of headroom, our perception distorts and it becomes difficult to perceive what is really going on around us and inside our own heads. Not that folks who meditate or whatever else don’t have distorted perceptions — clearly many such people do. But the distortion that builds up from stress creates a serious mess. Better to have only a few distorted clips in the audio file than extended bursts of white noise. Likewise with headroom in the mind — ya keep it from clipping by paying careful attention at every step of its activity.

Go Straight!

Posted in Buddhism, Daoism, Exercise, Fighting, health, martial arts, meditation, Monasticism, tai chi, taijiquan with tags , , , , on March 7, 2009 by wizardsmoke

Lately, in my Taijiquan practice, I’ve been thinking a lot about the principle of verticality. One of the five fundamental principles of Zheng Manqing-style Taijiquan (and numerous other branches) is to maintain verticality in all movement. This means, keep the back straight — and very importantly — keep the eyes looking ahead on eye-level. This last part about the eyes is often neglected unless folks practice wholeheartedly and on a daily basis.

Verticality is important if you do Buddhist or Taoist meditation practices too (and probably other branches, i.e. Hindu stuff, but I really don’t know and can’t say). Of course, in seated meditation, when it is done with the eyes open the eyes are not straight ahead, but must fall a few feet in front of where you are sitting. The exact spot will vary from person to person, depending on their height, torso size, etc. and must be determined by the individual through consistently practicing and discovering which position allows for good posture with minimal tension.

But the point in either case, is that the eyes are directly related to posture, even though we commonly associate the idea of verticality only with the spine. When the eyes drop below the normal eyeline of the head/body, the body slumps and begins to lean forward. In a combative situation, one will lean on or into the opponent, or overextend the limbs and let them become handles by which to manipulate the body. This can also be related to — or an exaggeration of — sloth, torpor or laziness. It is usually an extension of bodily tension and chronic poor posture, further cyclically exacerbated by this eye scenario.

The other possibility, that the eyes extend too far above the relaxed, default position, reflects tension and excitability or irritability. It’s less common that people have this problem, rather than the previous one of slumping. If people are overly upright in posture, they typically are carrying a lot of tension in the shoulders because they’re using too much muscle mass and are disconnecting from their dantien or hara — their bodily center below the navel.

It seems pretty obvious, but the eyes are a subtle part of our posture. Most people walking down the street are looking at the ground, only glancing up at noises or approaching people. By looking at the ground, their posture is already beginning to suffer — and they’re revealing themselves to be a more viable target for predators seeking people lost in their own thought-worlds. In fact, the drooping of the eyes and the slumping of one’s neck and back is directly tied to thoughts — the more lost in our thoughts we are, the more our posture will suffer.

The Life of Qi

Posted in Buddhism, Daoism, Fighting, health, martial arts, Mysticism, Qi, Ultimate Reality with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 29, 2008 by wizardsmoke

Full-body movement is very interesting. When using the entire body to move at once, as in Taijiquan or a variety of other martial arts, there is no place where the movement originates. Sure, it’s seemingly POWERED by the legs and the waist, and you keep your mind-intent in the dantien or hara, but the movement does not originate anywhere specifically on the body. Which connects the intent to the mind, rather than any telegraphed isolated point in the limbs or whatever.

As a result, the individual gains a subtler awareness of the body’s relationship to itself and its surroundings. Full body movement generally takes place as one eliminates unnecessary tension from the muscles — tension which is the result of excess stress from thoughts, worries and other typical mental baggage and metaphysical funk. Upon releasing tension from the muscles, one’s structure becomes naturally stable and strong (held up by the skeleton), and the qi begins to fill the dantien and then move throughout the structure of the body, strengthening the bones.

Strange things can be done with qi. Qi is, of course, difficult to define or pin down (preaching to the choir here!). And why don’t Buddhist masters talk about qi? Surely many of them knew about it, and Hindu religious practices emphasize prana. Tibetan Buddhism has it’s own set of definitions about bodily energy which are fascinating, but most Buddhism emphasizes all personal energy or ability, health and whatnot as coming from the mind alone.

Yes, Buddhism and even Hermetics focus upon the mind/breath as the object of meditative practice. I’ve heard people claim that meditating upon the qi is missing the point or somehow allows people to get lost in ideas of power or energy or trance. Yet in my experience, qi meditation is merely a means, and is never explicitly described to be an end. Qi meditations are not the only ones I use, but in certain cases, such as in the martial arts, it leads to an increased subtle awareness which makes one’s practice much deeper.

Anyway, everyone is sensitive to the qi meridians. Just run your finger along the sensitive, ticklish spots on the inside of your arm or the back of your legs and ankles. I found I could follow the qi meridians right away because the qi flows where a person is naturally sensitive/ticklish. For what it’s worth, although I had already read about the qi meridians in books before being “transmitted” the meditation process in person, I did not actually recognize or follow the qi until someone showed the process to me.

On that note, qi transmission is problematic because it is hard to make sure someone else is learning it properly. I know folks who have been practicing longer than me who still claim not to feel anything qi-related, and quite advanced meditators who claim to have no experience with qi. This lends to the skepticism of many empiricists who do not trust qi to be a valid experiential medium. But in my experience, qi is verily real. One teacher of mine had the strange ability to undo tension in other people by using his qi. Whether or not it’s actually qi, he did it by extending his energy into you through his hands, at the point on the upper palm, and the personal result is a hot stream of energy in your body where he sends his intent. Wild stuff. Sounds like reiki or shiatsu or whatever, but I’ve felt those things and this was something else.

Everything that exists has qi, but it differentiates from the concept of mind, in that qi is limited to the dynamics of being a life-force medium which is unknowable. The mind is itself perhaps unknowable as well, but the mind is the very intangible fabric in which all things are reflections. Qi does not have reflections, but is the subtly tangible, yet unknowable, essence behind all existences.

Tough times @ WS HQ

Posted in health, Mysticism, Occult, Stayin' Alive with tags , , , , on October 5, 2008 by wizardsmoke

I am in the midst of battling a 103-degree (Fahrenheit!) fever. I think today was the worst of it, but whoa nelly — that really could’ve been the end of me had I not taken care of it ASAP. If I were a settler on the Oregon Trail™ I would’ve certainly been done for! But it was entirely my fault to begin with, really. I saw it coming from a mile away. My one piece of advice is: remember to always get yer beauty-rest, kiddos!

The funny thing about being really bed-ridden is how it makes you look at your entire life, Ivan Ilyich-style. All the wonderful and terrible moments of one’s life become fully illuminated when one sits for days in isolation, without distractions. It must be pretty tough stuff if you’re a terrible person with demons in the subconscious (in other words, it was pretty tough stuff, ahaha!).

Towards the height of this illness, I found I could only avoid excruciating pain by maintaining a constant breath. Any shortage of breath, any moment where the breath stopped, would send blood pumping to my head. And every time blood would go to my head it felt like I was being stabbed with a knife. But continuous, meditative breathing also made it hard for my temperature to go down, since focused breathing can actually raise one’s body heat.

Anyway, the things I did mentally to get through the torture: (1) aforementioned continuous breathing, (2) objective observation of the pain itself, (3) dwelling mentally in parts of the body which were not in pain, and (4) accessing concentration via cool, icy, “water-element” images.

Plus wet washcloths and all that junk.

And now it’s on to the final round. Tut, tut! Don’t abandon us yet, dear readers! ‘Smoke has plenty of fight in him left!

Great Western Jhanic Diffusion

Posted in Buddhism, Monasticism, Reality Bites, Religion, Ultimate Reality with tags , , , , , on February 21, 2008 by wizardsmoke

Jhana seems to be a pretty hot (or touchy) topic for internet Buddhists, recently due in part to the efforts and gradual influence of Jeffrey S. Brooks (a.k.a. Jhanananda).

Jeff is a “self-ordained” monk who lives out of his van in the southwestern US, often traveling to teach or take up retreat or temporary residence at various locations. His teaching is marked by open discourse on “jhanas” (ecstatic states of concentration beyond the physical senses), which is supposedly a big no-no in open Buddhist discussions. Discussions on an individual’s progress in meditative absorption should be in secret between student and teacher, and the jhanas are (according to Jeff) not encouraged among the Buddhist orthodoxy. It’s a rule, such as the one delegating that monks cannot brag about their attainments or abilities achieved during or by meditation.

There are a number of reasons Jeff ruffles a few feathers in his open discourse.

The first is that he is not a Buddhist teacher recognized by any legitimate lineage or heritage — his radical opinions are his own. It seems he was not allowed into his local Theravada or Zen monastic lineages for reasons that are not entirely clear and so one can only speculate upon. He says he was rejected proper ordination for his individual progress in jhana; others have said he simply was seeking official recognition as a realized individual and Buddhist teacher and so was refused.

Also, Jeff’s discourses are overwhelmingly concentrated on the jhanas. Indeed, his entire message seems to be that the jhanas are the meat and potatoes of the Buddhist path and that one’s path can only progress by experiences in these mental absorption states. He emphasizes that the Eight-Fold path actually arises from deep suffusion in jhana. This goes against the way jhanas are introduced early on in Buddhist meditation practice; they are rarely emphasized, similarly to magic powers, because they easily become obstacles and create conscious intentions in the mind of the student.

Additionally, there’s his method of discourse. Jeff appears on many Buddhist message boards (such as E-Sangha or the Buddhist Society of Western Australia) and proceeds to describe his experiences in great detail. It’s interesting reading, for sure, and the guy isn’t lying about his experiences. However, there is a sort of evangelical strain to his preaching. He decries others for censoring him, criticizes other Buddhist teachers, claims his own path as being the only one with real understanding, and talks about how he’s a martyr long before anyone does anything except tell him his jhana-obsession is questionable. At the very least, he is as extreme in his viewpoint as the most extreme people who oppose him.

And then there’s the fact that he is never satisfied with a discussion unless it’s a matter of deference to his opinion. You give him a forum to speak and it becomes a soapbox for his extreme views. At that point it doesn’t even matter what his agenda is — you just don’t want to listen to someone presenting themselves in that manner.

I’m not particularly dismissive of Jeff and his actual work, though. I do think his project is cool, the way he’s provided detailed accounts of the jhanas and their characteristics is actually quite useful, and his cross-cultural/spiritual allusions and comparisons are a welcome teaching tool as well. I’ve spoken to him via e-mail a bit, and he’s always been cordial and responsive.

The thing is, I really see Jeff as more of a yogi than a Buddist teacher. His path seems to be one of a certain kind of indulgence, an extreme path that yields high metaphysical and esoteric results. Buddhism is a religion that is for all branches of life and people, not just the elite meditators among us. Sadhus, yamabushi, shamans and so on are not spiritual gurus for the masses in the way monks, priests, ministers and abbots are. The former are more like ascetics who bear the fruit of meditative results, whether they’re fully enlightened or not. I’m not denigrating either group, and the path meets somewhere in the middle. But you don’t teach crazy metaphysical jazz to laypeople and every internet nerd on the web because it doesn’t help them simplify their life; it’s not improving their social obligations. The Buddha’s teachings were contemporary to Confucius and Socrates, and emphasized new social obligations in a way that modified the caste system in India.

The jhanas are important on the path to awakening and developing deeper concentration, but come on… Enlightenment isn’t a jhana, and yet that’s exactly what Jeff seems to be saying about it.

Anxiety Attacks!

Posted in Reality Bites, World of Emotions with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 20, 2008 by wizardsmoke

Life is in constant motion and if you want to stay in good mental health, you’ll stay in constant motion too.

What does it mean to stay in motion? I’m referring to the ability to constantly refresh the things one does. By refreshing and putting new (original) effort into each day, a person can fight off laziness and drop off the mental agony of restlessness. It seems sometimes like restlessness can build up energy to be exerted in our ambitions and activities, but ideally we keep ourselves moving in order to keep restlessness from overcoming us and creating great emotional misery. Energy coming from developed restlessness or anxiety tends to be a bit unbalanced and misplaced.

Following those impulses makes them more likely to keep appearing, and also influences one to keep doing things that make their neuroses stronger. Many times one thinks that following their impulses will satiate them and thus solve the problem for the moment. In that sense they are like sexual impulses. They are always strong, but each time they are followed they become easier to follow and the rest of the mind or will becomes correspondingly weaker as a result.

Everyone has their own definition of what it means to be productive. But some kinds of productivity rely on outside partnerships and influences to be fulfilled. I mean, if productivity in one’s life is merely being defined by social, material or financial gains, that productivity is limited and unstable. It is not a dependable source of personal satisfaction. By learning to leave behind anxiety, stress and restlessness, one learns to balance one’s life and intimately penetrate the concept of change. Change is interesting because ultimately nothing is changing when one is maintaining a sense of balance. One will appear differently throughout each “form”, but the root is always the same.

So one needs to be constantly “productive” or to be doing things that are fulfilling, however these fulfilling activities must periodically change in order to stay fresh and effective, and they must be activities that need not rely on other people — and also do not directly interfere with the lives (and desires) of others.

This is also part of the ability to see through illusions – constantly changing one’s habits and daily actions. Sometimes it is important to do the same thing every day, the same kind of practice. But at the same time, if these practices are not challenged or changed from time to time, they can become stale. And stale practices are a waste of time. A stale practice, like idle time and interactions, is like mold. It leads to nothing except self-indulgences and foolishness.

It is true that we sometimes like to rely on people for a dependable pattern (i.e. artists). However, it is important to keep changing or else one becomes something of a technician – one who is following a formula. For an unchanging person, the formula has become their life. A great artist is constantly reinventing themselves. Their source is always the same, but they always find new ways to surprise others and also create works which do not quickly betray their deepest integrity. But their change is also a result of evasion from the demon of despair, which arises as soon as one ceases to change. Then anxiety swells and one falls into an unbalanced indulgence of self. The external appearance of change is observed empirically by the world, but internally the changing artist is in most perfect balance with the world. But these people are rare and the world often mistakes who is of this caliber. It is almost impossible to categorize such people.

Those who are ahead of their time are forced because they intimately abide by a divine law of change which has shaped their life. All follow this law, but it is only intimately known by those who feel compelled to reinvention again and again and so become at ease within change. This is how the transmigration of life and death can be understood – by the mastery of infinite change and having the compulsion to do so.