Thursday, April 13, 2017

The theory of meditation – for serious practitioners

If you pick up a book on meditation, chances are that you will be told that meditation is easy, and the benefit is huge. Modern man (and of course modern woman too, probably there are more female meditators than male meditators) is busy and commonly scared of anything that sounds unscientific. They love anything that is simple, easy to do and above all scientific. Is meditation really easy and the benefits huge? I shall discuss the theory behind sound practice of meditation.

In popular meditation books, probably you will be told to sit in a quiet place, simply seated or with seated with legs folded, easy pose or half-lotus pose for beginners (with a cushion to elevate your buttocks for comfort), to try your best to empty your mind (if you can’t, just let your thoughts flow), make a certain hand form (called mudra) and recite a mantra, count your breathes or listen to soft music to relax your mind. In your actual practice your might have the benefit of a meditation or mindfulness teacher to guide you (or you might like to choose to learn meditation on your own).

During your first one or two lessons, you will likely to find meditation relaxing and enjoy the process. Your teacher might praise you on your progress and you might begin to be convinced that meditation can have all sorts of benefits including improving your immune system and increase your life expectancy. And most important of all, you like it!

But then after more sessions, you had days, oftentimes in a row, that you could not focus your mind properly. The more nervous you get the more you could not focus your mind. And you might have days that you just feel you are sitting down relaxing (and have intermittent short day dreams during the session), which is the same experience that when you listen to some nice music. You would properly lose your initial enthusiasm and ponder on the new thinking that mediation perhaps not your cup of tea.

The benefits of meditation are indeed huge. It is a pity that many people dropped off this good practice after giving it a try (or continue the practice at home, but can only reap the benefit of simple relaxation that can be probably be obtained through listening to some soft music in a cozy environment). To reap the full benefit of meditation, a practitioner has to understand the theory behind meditation, and put in time and efforts to try his best to obtain the result, which is oftentimes signaled by internal chi-sensations.

The thing to look for in meditative practice is quite simple. In meditation (or mindfulness training) you do everything to put yourself into the zone of Emptiness (Kong ) and simply stay there. “What is Emptiness?” and “How to achieve Emptiness” are the issues.

A layman’s understanding of Emptiness is that there is nothing. For example, you have 10 units of “noise” that bother you, and you want to reduce it to zero (or very close to zero). Zero is Emptiness. Thus answered the “What” question. As for “How”, reduce it through “simple techniques” as mentioned above. This is the theory that many popular books on meditation wants to tell you.

In search of a better theory, let me tackle the “What” issue first. Emptiness () is indeed zero. But it is not Nothingness (there is nothing – 甚麽也沒有).
10 – 10 is zero
+(10) + (-10) is also zero (or in general form +(x)+(-x) = 0 where x is a number
The zero that I am taking about is Emptiness in the sense of the second statement. And (+) means Yang and (-) means Yin. They are opposing forms of energy.

Next, the “Issue” issue. Through techniques (like those in yoga and Zen-Tao meditation) a practitioner firstly tries to increase the value of x and second tries to balance the positive and negative values to achieve Emptiness or “in the zone”.

In the practice of yoga, the first step is through the body postures called Asanas (which aims primarily at aligning our structure for better chi energy generation, i.e. increase the value of x and secondarily at balancing the positive and negative values) , and the second step is breathing exercises called Pranayama (which aims at increasing and balancing x and –x in seated form only with nano-movements powered by our breathing muscles), and the third step meditation proper (which aims at balancing the positive and negative values and managing our thoughts). The classic way is follow the steps. This is a sound system for the most serious practitioners.

In my practice of Zen-Tao meditation, all steps are intertwined together and grow together step by step. For example, on day one we do zhan zhuang which do body alignment to generate chi, with internal movements generated by our breathing muscles and half closed eyes to approach the zone. Once a student has an experiential understanding of the whole concept, he will be introduced to different exercises that will focus on other stationery or simple movement forms to open our major joints to generate chi (i.e. increase x). When such a foundation is built, then a student will go into seated meditation. This is a sound way, I believe, for most serious practitioners.

In short, in sound meditative practice, a student does not jump into seated mediation counting breathes on Day One. One last tip: staying in the zone with a good value of x is not a static process. It is a dynamic process in which the value is not stable at zero but fluctuate between a small plus and a small minus. Our mindfulness has to put into an effort to fluctuate it around zero.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Protect your knees – revisiting this important issue!

Knee pain is a major inconvenience to many middle-aged people. Can tai chi or chi kung solve the problem? But isn’t it something called tai chi knees, with some doctors advising their knee-pain patients not to practise tai chi? Should we take a rest as some doctors advise? But there are some doctors who advise that one should strengthen one’s leg muscles with more exercises to lessen knee pain? In severe cases our surgeon may advise us to do an operation to take out those damaged tissue to lessen (or even take away totally) the pain. Do you want an operation? And do you do another operation (if at all possible) when the next knee pain comes?

I don’t have knee pain and I have “cured” the knees pain of some of my students through practising my selected exercises of tai chi chi-kung. However, I cannot guarantee that every knee pain I can “cure”. Two reasons: firstly, my teaching may not be applicable to all cases; and secondly, more importantly, many people do not have the patience to focus on the minute internal experience leading to progress. Doing surgery is the sole responsibility of the surgeon but healing through tai chi chi-kung exercise is a joint effort of the teacher and the student (client).

The theory behind tai chi chi-kung healing is simple. The advice to strengthen one’s leg muscles (in particular thigh muscles) is correct. Resting and avoidance cannot cure knee pain. When you are resting you experience no (or much less) pain, but we cannot rest the whole day, there will be loads of other problems that will arise. And when your muscles become weaker, your pain will intensify. The gist of the solution is to join your leg muscles properly together, and your leg muscles as a whole being joined properly together with the rest of your body. In chi-kung lingo, it is "muscles as one". When you can experientially and physically join your muscles together, you can minutely realign your muscles so that your can avoid the points in your knees that create pain. It will take many sessions of practice, the length of time depends on each individual. When such realignment is strengthened/done, you will be able to walk, and free from knee pain, without your conscious attention to make the realignment. The objective of the exercise is that in your daily life you can forget about you knees - you have no more pain!

Healing is best to be done with the help of an experienced teacher - a cooperative effort. Those who do not have such benefit, should study closely the theory as explained above and try to experiment step by step to achieve the desired results. Good luck.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The positive and the negative aspect of any side effect in chi kung

In the practice of chi kung, the same side effect can be either positive or negative! A side effect that some literature talked about is "trapping of chi" in certain parts of a practitioner's body. The general advice is that it is bad for the body and should be avoided; and if it happens to a student, a qualified coach is to be consulted. Dropping out of the practice may end up to be the unavoidable final solution in severe cases. And, if the trapped chi is inside one's head, it might lead to severe headache or can even trigger an onset of psychosis! Doesn't it sound scary?!

Chi is powerful energy. When it is trapped in certain parts of our body, it will try to "reach out" and to "neutralize" itself. The target of reaching out is another chi (or excited) point. In the most generalized situation, it will try to reach out to our stretched hands (and fingers). For seasoned practitioners it will also reach out to their feet and stretched toes. For the most seasoned practitioners, it will reach out to any internal points energized by the practitioners themselves through subtle body adjustment, breathing and mental focusing. These internal points are essential for training. In tai chi chi-kung, these are our joints (that's why tai chi classics says: opening our nine joints), plus our Dantian. In meditation, they are our chakras. In microcosmic circulation, it is our spine.

Now for practitioners who are progressing along their learning path (which incidentally include the most seasoned practitioners), there will be cases, during chi movement, when such chi is blocked in certain parts of our body. With a path is blocked with chi still coming along the way, chi will be highly concentrated in one point (or small area), making the practitioner feel very uncomfortable. It can be quite scary when one experiences it the first time. This is the negative aspect of chi kung side effect. Some students will drop out when they encounter this.

Luckily there is a positive side. Trapped chi is really a challenge to a practitioner who aims high. With or without the help of his teacher, a courageous student/practitioner will try out methods (subtle movements and mental focusing) advised by his teacher. However such teacher-suggested solution is likely to be inadequate because a teacher does not share his student's same internal sensation (a good teacher of course can infer and deduce through observation and touching), and without feedback to any progress (with such progress being difficult to verbalize). Only with good feedback can a student further fine-tunes his solution accordingly. Therefore, in addition to his teacher's advice, a student will also need to try to improvise, and by trial and error, divert chi through the path that has been blocked, say frontal attack to clear the blockage or gently move chi sideways to bypass the blockage and soften it in the process.

His improvisation and trial and error methods, using his own body as his experimental subject, a student will be able to make big progress in his practice - both opening (or softening) the blockage and in the process understand his own body better. Courage and dedication to his art is essential. And only through such experience (which can be many, and will be getting more and more controllable/manageable), can a practitioner progresses to the highest level and become a true master of the art himself. Chi kung is a sophisticated and complex internal discipline. Only masters who have gone through such experiences (and benefited from them) who are qualified to teach.

The above comes from my own experience: learning and teaching.
(edited on 13 Dec 16)

Monday, August 22, 2016

The myth of astral travel

"Astral travel" is a by-product of chi kung or meditative practice. It is also a myth. A myth in the sense that there is a far better explanation of the phenomenon than our soul travelling outside our body. My explanations come from my knowledge of psychology (I majored in psychology in University, with continual personal study of relevant subjects after graduation), my study of experiential writings of chi-kung and meditation practitioners (and those who have no practice experience but have astral travel experience, due to heredity, or special make of one's mind/body), my study of Taoist classics, my discussions with those friends of mine who have such experience, and last but not least my own empirical experience.

For certain special people, it comes naturally with vivid dreams or vivid imagery during their waking lives. For most people, such vivid dreams (or vivid imagery during meditation) comes from learned experience of deep meditation. The images (or experience) are always vivid. The person seemingly have logical thinking during such experience, so much so, the person sometimes can logically argue (and therefore convinced) that they are not in the waking stage but is in a different zone (whether it is vivid dream ("I am dreaming') or "out-of-body" experience ("my soul is traveling in different time/space") depends on the belief system of the person). Oftentimes, images can be remembered vividly after waken up. Some experience can be so vivid that details can be richer than what can be found in reality (for example, the image or personality of a friend can be in more details when compared with real life experience).  Such experience sometimes can be proved to be that it can help to solve everyday logical problems (not too surprising though, when people without such experience sometimes claim that after a good night sleep, difficult problems have been solved).

It is interesting to note that religiously minded meditators sometimes believe that such inner experience is more important (and sacred) than everyday experience. Not too surprisingly though, since when a devoted meditator meditates daily in secluded places, nothing interesting really happens around him. His vivid dreams draw rich and interesting resources from his past experience, including both conscious and unconscious, the latter including that, for whatever reasons, has been suppressed from his conscious thoughts.

As I said in the beginning, chi-kung and meditation practitioners can have such experience as a by-product. And as by-product goes, it should not be a major training objective of one's training. For me, it serves the purpose of an interesting psychological construct which can help me understanding myself better, in particular any suppressed unconscious thoughts that may surface to my consciousness during my vivid dreams. If a practitioner takes it light-heartedly, he will not become superstitious.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The three ways to do tai chi forms

Most people have heard about the three different ways to do tai chi forms: the square form, the round form and the fast form. The "general practitioners" usually only do the round form. For serious practitioners who use tai chi as the main, or only, system to do workout, understanding and practice of the three different forms are required. And here I am talking about serious training, through which a practitioner can reap full benefits - and therefore a practitioner will/can feel "strong workout/exercise effects" after his training session. Below is the theory behind these three forms, needless to say, actual learning and practice is a more complex matter and most likely will require the personal coaching of an experienced teacher.

Square form: in doing thee square form correctly, a student must carefully align his structure, in particular those joints responsible for the next movement (primarily shoulder and/or hip joints). Like shooting an arrow a slight movement to the opposite direction will be beneficial to initiate the movement.  The internal sensation is finding the points of maximum resistance while the objective is to open one's joints (and strengthen it at the same time). Analogy in Chinese calligraphy is 楷書 (regular script)。

Round form: This presupposes a prior training of square form. With prior proper joint opening/strengthening, round form aims at "rounding the angles in the joints" (as per points of joints being aligned during square form). The movements themselves will look simplified when compared to the square form. Without prior training in square form, round form will look structurally weak. With prior training in square form, the curved angle will have power to deliver a strong rounded structure. Analogy in Chinese calligraphy is 草書 (cursive script)。

Fast form: The fast form as it name suggested is to be executed (visually to an outsider) faster than both square and round forms. Prior training in square and round form is required. Its form is similar to round form but can be much more cursory and is practised in such a way that a sudden explosion of power while doing like the round form. The explosion of power is fast and quick. And the power comes from overcoming the internal resistance of our body (primarily our joints), and thereby trained our body's ability to externalize power with full-body connectedness. A practitioner here is free to choose which individual movements he wants to externalize his power for training purpose. 

The above is the gist of tai-chi's training method as in internal martial arts. It is an excellent way to improve our health and strength for people of any and all ages. Needless to say, full-contact combat training (conditioning side) has to include elements of external martial arts (for example, should include hitting a heavy bag for strengthening one's "points of contact" and building up the line of power transmission between the body and the "points of contact"). But the fact is that those who are interested in full-contact combat will most likely not be interested in tai chi, and those who are interested in tai chi will most likely not be interested in full-contact combat. As a result, the training of modern tai chi will be sufficient using the three different forms (square, round and fast) as far as the interest of students is concerned.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

How to breathe in doing tai chi

How should we breathe when we do our tai chi form, of whichever lineage? The correct, but not so correct, answer is 'normal breathing'. Why not so correct? It is because we have to learn power breathing first before we can do proper tai chi form using normal breathing. And tai chi form has to be done using normal breathing that can have the effect of power breathing. If the above doesn't sound too strange to you, read on!

Before we can put down something we have to lift it up in the first place! It is essentially the same in the practice of tai chi. Tai chi is moving meditation. A student has to do it slowly with a meditation mind in a meditative zone. And only in a meditative zone can a student relaxes his joints and allow his breathing muscles to do their proper job, in addition to allowing inertia and the force of gravity to take part. Such meditative approach however will be ineffective without prior conditioning of one's body - or "lifting it up first".

How to train our body (or lift up our body)? There are two basic areas to be trained: the first one is opening one's shoulder and hip joints, our major joints, primarily using the method of "finding points maximum resistance", and the closely related second one is learning how to do power breathing.

I have explained the former in previous posts. Breathing needs more explanations here.

Firstly, tai chi breathing, when doing tai chi forms, requires a practitioner to be able to generate chi both while inhaling or exhaling. When a student can do it this way, he can forget about when to breathe in, when to breathe out; his simply needs to breathe as his movement flows.

Secondly, while breathing (inhaling and exhaling), our breathing muscles (primarily our diaphragm) must be able to open our joints (hence joint opening has to be/is being trained together with power breathing). Power breathing is like weight lifting. The weight to overcome here is the "sluggishness of our joints".

Thirdly, such power breathing has to be trained separately (with some prior joints opening training) and preferable with the personal guidance of a good teacher.

Traditionally, such training is to be done separately from tai chi form. And it is traditionally call tai chi nei-gong or tai chi chi-kung.

The training sequence should be: first tai chi chi-kung (both power breathing and joint opening), second tai chi form and finally tai chi chi-kung and tai chi form in sequence during a training session.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The concept of touch in coaching

In the internal arts, the most important things happened inside one's body. In training, it is the internal that affects the external. The primacy is in the internal, which however, cannot be observed! It creates a problem for the teacher.

The way to overcome it is through touch. In the modern world where teachers and students are treated as sellers and buyers, with limited emotional attachment (which in the past the relationship is more paternalistic, like master and disciples). Touch is, or can be, problematic, more so, for the opposite sex. So much so, nowadays some teachers do away with touch altogether. And so much so, some teachers have lost the skill of touch in their training repertoire (assuming that they have picked it up in the first place, apparently some of them never). 

In my opinion, the use of touch to gauge the internal chi of a student is an important training skill of a teacher of the internal arts. Reserving the technique in door is not a solution, because touch can be problematic in the modern world - for both teacher and student, and can create discomfort or misunderstanding in either side.

The correct approach is firstly do coaching in the open rather than in private. And secondly limit the touch to the arms (hands, elbows etc) and the shoulders. My experience is that limiting to these areas will be good enough, in most cases, for a good feel of a student's chi level and for the teacher to manage his/her student's chi accordingly. Should an external point force is needed to stimulate chi in a particular area, the use of an external object (wall, table or tennis ball against a hard surface) will be good enough. 

Needless to say the above is my personal opinion, different teachers might have their different approaches to the subject. As the old saying goes: the proof is in the pudding.

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