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End-of-year review 1 of 2: meditation

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Candle Meditation

Well, well, well: it’s almost nine months since I came back to Beijing. Here are some thoughts as 2015 inches towards its close.

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China once more


Something odd happened recently during a work trip to Tianjin. I had a few spare periods, and I used them to practice my ZMQ-37 taijiquan form. Like most things that I write about in this blog, it’s been over four years (closer to five, in fact) since I did any work with this, but it came back surprisingly quickly. One set in particular went very well; I entered the flow state, with my mind quite empty of thoughts except for the feeling of my soles in contact with the floor, the movements of my joints and bones, and tendons and ligaments.

Suddenly, the room seemed to fill with the smells of a forest. There was the spicy fragrance of flowers, but also herbal undertones, and the richness of spring vegetation. It was quite inexplicable; I was on the eighth floor of a concrete monstrosity, in the middle of a dusty concrete campus on a very hot and smoggy day. There were NO plants anywhere nearby; the windows were firmly closed, and the aircon was blowing full blast. The experience only lasted for the duration of that set, and it was the only time I smelt anything natural during the two days I worked in that room.

On the other hand, although it’s not something I’ve experienced before, this is the kind of thing that is supposed to indicate a spirit presence. Even to me, that last sentence seems a bit far out but, after I heard the dragons singing in Qingbiankou a few years ago – when I was also in a deep meditative state – it’s an explanation that I’m open to.

Aaah. Yes, I’m back in China. There are different rules here….

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On moral and martial virtue

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Right then, back to the nominal topics of this blog.

It’s Monday night and I have a long list of things that I should be doing, but frankly I’m too tired. For the first time in ages, instead, I sat for a session of vipassana: not too successfully, I fear – the monkey mind is very strong at the moment! Never mind, keep going…

This weekend there was a change in the air; everyone could taste the Spring coming. Last Thursday morning, I left for work before dawn; before getting into the car, I took a moment to stand silent, listening to the birdsong build up. The air was very still and full of qi; it made me clap my hands and shout HA for the joy of breathing. As I had a bit of a time margin before I needed to be in the office, I stopped the car as I drove over the moorland towards the city limits, and parked on the side of the road. I’ve often meant to do this, but never actually did it. On this occasion, there was a heavy mist, fragrant with the smell of brine from the nearby sea. In the pre-dawn gloom there was nothing of the views that are there on clear days, but the sense of stillness and space was calming. Soon, it’ll be the end of winter; time for me to buy some hill-walking boots!

Since I last blogged about martial arts, Earle Montaigue has passed on. I gave my condolences to Eli, but of course I don’t know him well, and I never had the chance to meet Earle. I’m saddened by that. I suppose the best anecdote I can give is that I bought a copy of his dim mak book in Singapore. When I moved to Beijing, I lent it to a Shaolin-trained martial artist who was studying dian xue of the Yang taiji style; his comment was that “it wasn’t the real thing”… but he never gave it back, despite being asked!

The last couple of weeks have been super-busy at work, combined with more than a little insomnia. I’ve made it to Eli’s classes; bagua followed by taiji. I’m really getting into this. It’s great to study the two together, which is something I’ve never done before, and I’m really getting my bagua vibe back! Plus it is just great to finally have an English-speaking teacher. I’m getting very excited about neijia again 🙂

On the other hand, I’ve missed the last two systema classes; I’ve been too tired, and basically didn’t trust myself to drive there and back without falling asleep at the wheel (oh, and I needed to work late at the office…). I should be able to make it this week though. There’s also an all-day seminar coming up at the end of this month; I plan to go to that, so I’ll finally get to meet Mark in person!

As for the title of this post… Having had a great time in the last class with Eli, I asked him whether he’d ever seen wulin zhi. It turns out that he hasn’t, so I’ll lend him my copy when I go tomorrow. That has motivated me to watch it again myself; it’s playing as I type (the famous scene with the pole circle is on right now!). As always, I love it – and yet, I feel saddened.

Those of you who know me IRL know why I left Asia, and I still think I did the right thing. And yet… and yet… I keep on being reminded why I originally quit Wales, and why I didn’t think I would return – until suddenly I had to. Hardly anyone has asked me what my life was like in Singapore and China; what I valued, and what I did with my time, or who I knew and why I valued them. It seems to be assumed that it was just a phase, and now I’ve returned to ‘normal’ life.

Not so, though. As I sit here watching wulin zhi, I’m reminded of how much I have internalized the values of wu de. To quote from that link, wu de stands for:

  • Ren: benvolence and mutual love
  • Yi: righteousness, justice, judging with the heart, having friendly feelings
  • Li: respect, rules of conduct, politeness
  • Zhi: knowledge, reason, education and learing
  • Xin: trust, sincerity and openness, to truly believe in something, and also to keep one’s promises, be stable and engaged in things
  • Yong: courage and braveness

I think of some of my teachers, especially of the older generation: Yao Cheng Rong, Zhou Yue Wen, Sun Ru Xian… These are men; men to be admired, men to be respected, men to be emulated. It’s important to me that though I never approached anything like their level, I was at least taken seriously. I find none to match them here; indeed, even today, I found some of the values that they and I hold were mocked by a colleague. Don’t get me wrong; there are other values. In my home town, I more and more feel a part of the community; it’s no small thing to be greeted from all directions by people old and young, from all walks of life, when you walk into a pub. But, and but… when the darkness falls here, Asia calls me.

I won’t be getting on a plane anytime soon, unless it’s for a holiday. Nevertheless, it’s a good thing to be reminded of wu de, and that the values of the jianghu, the values of wulin are more virtuous, and more admirable, than those of the little people I sometimes have to deal with here.

Wrestling competition in Ditan Park


A few weekends ago, before I went travelling, I went to Ditan Park to catch up with people from Small Steps Neijia. While I was trying to find them, I discovered that there was a big shuaijiao competition taking place. It was very cool – lots of old guys sitting in chairs and commenting knowledgeably on events, lots of keen youths waiting to compete, and a large crowd of fascinated observers! Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to stay and watch for long, but here’s a short clip of what I saw. One of the nice things about Beijing is randomly stumbling across this kind of thing!

The Tea Road

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I’m still reading the economic news, and crossing my fingers as the western economies creak and groan under vast amounts of debt. I hope that it will all work out and the world of abundance will continue as it has for the last twenty or so years – but I, like most of you, am old enough to remember how it was before, when flying to the other side of the world was only for the few, and stitching and mending and “waste not” were the rules we lived by, and so I can’t see how we carry on as we have been, living beyond our means as a culture.

So, sorry, I’m in a bearish mood still. (I never believed in “power animals”, even in the days when I knew lots of neo-pagans. I’m coming to suspect that if I have one, it’s a bear…..)

So, let’s talk a bit about what I’ve been up to.

Others are thinking along the same lines. Dave Pollard wrote about an article on Sharon Astyk’s site, which I liked very much. I recommend reading the original article, but Dave’s summary covers all the key points:

[Y]ou should move if:

Your mortgage is way more than the value of your house (especially since house values are likely to go lower)
You have young children or are elderly, and the people you’re closest to live far away
You have children you want to spend time with, or parents who need your care, living far away
You live in an extreme climate and are not adaptable to living without inexpensive heat, air conditioning, water, and imported food
You live in a community with people with mostly lousy (by your standards) values
You don’t think your children have a future where you live
You are planning on moving anyway (sooner is probably better than later)
You aren’t going to be happy or viable where you are if everything based on oil (transport, bought food, plastics, clothing, heat) gets much more expensive, or if your ‘commuter job’ disappears and you have to take (cheaper) employment locally
You live in an exurban area with no viable public transit, no locally produced food, and few close neighbours
You are not truly ‘native’ to where you live — never really fit in, called it home — and someplace else has always beckoned.

Now, I love living in Beijing; I love my work here, and there are very good people who share my values and worldview. Recently, I’ve been practising a lot in Zhongshan Park, and as I cycle beneath the walls of the Forbidden City with the morning sunlight and clear air making the red paint glow, or leaving the park at dusk with the air above me full of swallows flitting about and chittering as they return to their nests under the eaves of the watchtowers, or chasing insects amongst the willows that line the moat – well, I have to pinch myself to remind myself that yes, it is real, and yes, I am living in this amazing, fantastic city.

But I know that it won’t, it can’t, last forever. So, maybe it makes sense to think about how and when it ends – and a number of the points on Sharon’s list were already making me a little uneasy. I also got set thinking by a recent article on Afghanistan in the 1950s – a place of engineering success, rock and roll, and liberal values. I wonder if the people in those pictures ever suspected that within their lifetime their world would revert to being “a broken 13th century country“. Kyrgystan used to be a pretty well-developed element of the USSR; who, then, would have foreseen the ethnic cleansing and savagery that’s in the headlines this morning?

A lot of people are talking these days about beginning to build your tribe – or, as military theorist John Robb calls it, a “resilient community”. I’m not sure that I see that happening for me anywhere but Wales…

So, what to do? There are perhaps two options.

One is to seek to retreat from the world and let it go on its way without me. That’s the route of the hermit or the monastery. I still want to write about people who’ve taken that way, in the much-postponed next post in the “What’s it all about?” sequence of entries here. That did seem a strong option for me at one point, to be honest. I’m very drawn to Plum Village, for example… 🙂 Still, starting from when I began dating the Siberian, I’ve been drawn back into the world of attachment….

The other route is to get involved in building a resilient community. The question is, what can I (or you, reader) contribute?

It’s a question that is provoking a new movement in my martial arts interests – and leading me along the Tea Road…. In other words, it’s why I’ve been posting a lot about shashkas and systema recently!

I’ve been reviewing some of the DVDs of systema that were given to me, and comparing them to the “Systema Spetsnaz” DVD on “Internal Wave Energy” that I recently purchased. I also bought Scott Sonnon’s “Softwork“; I gather that this isn’t what he teaches these days, being from an earlier period in his trajectory, but it brings together what he learned from ROSS and other Russian systems.

To be honest, I really don’t see any huge differences between the practices of the different schools. I really like the philosophy that they all seem to share, and which is outlined in an article that I’ve previously linked to:

The doctrine of Russian Martial Art is based on the concepts of non-violence, cooperation, non-resistance and conformity. The Russian Martial Art master absorbs blows effortlessly, contorts the body to accommodate the threat and maintains contact until the assailant is rendered immobile.

… which fits rather nicely with something I’ve also been seeking in my martial arts studies (see my post ‘The manner of victory is important‘).

So far so good, but if I can get this with the Chinese martial arts, why move towards systema? This is where community comes into the picture…. With the Chinese martial arts, I’m getting great results in health, mental calmness, and combative ability; yiquan in particular, as I’ve mentioned here many times, has been particularly beneficial for me. The thing is, even if I reach the level of being able to teach in one or more of these, I’m not sure how they help to build a community -especially back in the UK where they’re not exactly mainstream; in a community adapting to resource constraints, I rather suspect that they would be seen at best as “nice, but by no means necessary”.

The Russian martial arts, on the other hand, have elements that may be a bit more marketable. In particular, I’m thinking of its connection with Cossack dance and choral singing (hey, I am Welsh, after all!). These are elements that can be used to build a community – dance and singing could attract people of all ages when a lot of what has become popular entertainment turns out to be unsustainable, and people start working in larger groups again…. It is suitable for both genders and all ages… and inside the song and dance are health techniques and systema fighting methods… Add to that the connections with the theatre from Stanislavsky, Chekhov and so on, and you have a system that’s highly appropriate to community-building….

As an example, I’ve been following the “Siberian Cossack Group LAD” for some time; although there are some elements that make me wary – and I know there has been a falling out with Mikhail Ryabko, though I have no idea what it’s all about – they are doing a lot of interesting work in combining the elements I’ve been talking about, and taking these into schools, youth groups, and so on – take a look at their videos on YouTube. (And, as a point of interest, in a recent Yiquan class, we had a visitor from Hong Kong who trains systema there, and who has friends who’ve attended the seminar in Kuala Lumpur I wrote about before. We had a very interesting chat!).

Don’t take this to mean that I’m giving up on the Chinese styles – quite the contrary! I’m still really enjoying the yiquan, though I think this is something for me to work on in my original path of “martial arts and meditation” as opposed to ‘finding a role in a community’. I’ve also been training again in bagua, though for various reasons I’ve kept quiet about that; I’ll be writing about it soon, though.

I’d be interested to hear what you think about all this….

Learn TCM online

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I was taking a look at the website of the China Beijing International Acupuncture Centre, and I noticed a headline in the news section about “Distance Education”.

I read the news item, and it linked to a site of online education, where you can get educated in TCM via the internet. Some of the material is even free of charge…

So, since both Ed and Carlos have expressed an interest, here’s the link

Category: Beijing, TCM

Beijing spring


Some shots from Zhongshan park, where I’ve been practising taiji lately:

There’s a PLA barracks located in the park:

The Shichahai lakes:

The Bell Tower:

These are the last remaining parts of ‘Old Beijing’ – neighbourhoods of old hutongs, full of character, where a thriving and vibrant scene of small shops, bohemian bars, artists’ hangouts has grown up… So naturally, greedy eyes have fallen upon them; nothing in China will stop the pursuit of short-term profit, even though it means destroying the very things that created value. Soon, all this will be gone; the rich will have made more profits, leaving behind a sterile simulacrum of the creative community that once existed. The Spectacle will rein supreme in Beijing.

Category: Beijing, China Life

The smell of…. spring


Cycling to the office this morning, I became aware of an aroma that was pretty unusual in Beijing – despite this city’s wealth of smells… It was the smell of the cowshed, of fresh manure mixed with straw, warmed up by the body heat of the cows… It’s a familiar smell that I remember well from boyhood visits to my uncle’s farm… but I certainly wasn’t expecting to encounter it in the ‘Jing!

I was assuming that it was really something else (probably toxic) that just contained enough similar chemicals to trigger an association – but then I realised that I was passing work gangs with lots of blue sacks. They were digging up the earth around the roots of the roadside trees, and adding compost to fertilise it, and also planting rows of small shrubs in the flower beds – that compost was the source of the smell!

Ah, the air is warmer and fresher, the sun is pleasant, it really is spring. After a long cold winter, which passed for me mostly in pain and sleeplessness, it’s wonderful to feel life returning to the earth! Time to start mental and physical spring-cleaning….

Happy holidays


For those of you in the West: happy Easter! To those in the Chinese cultural zone: happy Qing Ming!

This is my third Qing Ming in China, wow. And I only planned to be here for four months….

It’s an auspicious weekend: SPRING has finally arrived! At last! (Cue manic laughter and many exclamation marks). The trees around the lakes at Houhai are starting to put out flowers; soon we should see the first faint fuzz of green, and this unusually long and bitter winter will slip away into memory…

Only one of the Hong Kongese guys was still around yesterday, not one that I’d trained with on Wednesday. It turned out to be a really good session. The second hour was all tui shou again. First I partnered with a new person whom I haven’t seen before. He’s obviously trained in yiquan before, so he must normally go to one of the larger group classes. Chinese, young, pretty strong but not yet subtle. He was pretty keen to have a go and attack, which was ok with me. I didn’t have too much difficulty deflecting his power and spinning him, but there were times when he was pressing hard, and I was soaking up the force in my qua and the tendons of the arm…. and he suddenly took his arm away; with his force released, my arm just sprang forward, so he got smacked in the mouth. Going to have to watch that…

Afterwards, I partnered a German guy – also young and very strong, plus much taller than me. I was pleased about that, because as I posted recently, I rarely get the chance to try out tui shou with people who are not my own height or shorter. On this occasion, we were fairly evenly matched.

Oddly, after an hour or so of vigorous tui shou, my muscles weren’t acheing. Even today, there’s not really any stiffness… Maybe it’ll hit me tomorrow…

Master Yao ended the class by reminding us how the yiquan training system works: first you work on the standing techniques, thinking about what you feel. Then you practice the testing-force exercises on your own, mentally working out the applications. Then you train with a partner, to see whether you were right, and identifying where you’ve got things right or wrong. Then you go back to the beginning.

After class, I took my sabre and cycled down to Zhongshan Park. I forgot to take photos, doh! It was a lovely spring afternoon, with quite a lot of people about. I found a quiet corner looking across the moat towards the red walls of the Forbidden City, and practiced my taiji. I worked on the first quarter of the sabre form, going through that about a dozen times, and also on the ZMQ-37 set, doing that five or so times. All I’m going to say is that it was great to practice on it outside, and there is significant room for improvement!

A good day.

Meeting new people

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As readers of his blog will know, Tabby Cat has been in Beijing lately. I had the pleasure of catching up with him yesterday, and found him to be as interesting and good to talk to as I had expected! Tabby, I’ll looking forward to catching up next time you’re in town; watch out for an email soon.

We had lunch and then took a stroll around Zhongshan Park, exploring parts of it that I haven’t been to before. I was fascinated to discover that this is one of the areas where parents gather to advertise the personal details of their children, who are too busy for dating, in the hope of finding them a spouse. I’d read about this, but hadn’t realized that it happens in the same park where I train 🙂 Funny old place, China…