Blog Archives

Twelve (years between) monkeys



I’ve just realized that twelve years have passed by since my first ever visit to Beijing, while it’s nearly six years since I left to return to Wales, not knowing at that time if I would ever come back to China. These are significant numbers: 12 years is the time to complete one full cycle of the Chinese zodiac, so six years is also a half-cycle. It’s also a year since I did, eventually, make it back to China, in April 2015, after being head-hunted out of the blue. A  number of signs and portents are suggesting I should take these signs seriously.


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Is mindfulness dangerous?


Short answer: no, if done properly. Usually not, even if not done properly. Alternatively: yes, decidedly so. Much depends on your perspective.
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End-of-year review 1 of 2: meditation


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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What lies beneath


I’ve been thinking a great deal about filters recently. By “filters”, I mean mental filters: the means by which we exclude information, and limit our understanding of the world.

This has been a really rather fruitful process, and has led to some useful breakthroughs in the spheres I explore in this blog – namely, martial arts, and spiritual development.

A conversation I was having with a colleague recently, the topic of Buddhism, meditation, and mental filters, turned out to have a real impact… on me.

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The Blue Room



I recently moved into a new place, as I described on my main blog.  It’s a small studio apartment slap bang in the middle of St. Petersburg. The walls are papered with a shimmery blue paper, and the curtains are also a pale blue. The windows face east and, as this is the period of the White Nights, when it’s only dark for a couple of hours, that means that the sun is shining into my room for much of the day. As a result, I keep the curtains closed, and the room fills with a tranquil blue light, as if it were an undersea cave.

My moving came just after the summer solstice when, by coincidence or not, I experienced a sudden new burst of optimism and energy. Consequently, all kinds of plans and practices which had been on the back burner have come back into play.

One of these is that I’ve started meditating again – for half an hour or an hour most days, using the mp3 files from my Vipassana retreats in Thailand. I’m already feeling the benefits, though there’s a lot of lost ground to be made up.

I also realised that I needed to start practising Chinese martial arts again. I’ve been starting to practice the Cheng Man Ching taiji form a bit; I knew that my yiquan teacher’s brother has disciples in Russia, so I Googled to see if there is anyone in St. Petersburg. There isn’t, but I found a wushu group, so I’ll start training xingyiquan with them. They have a teacher of bagua, but her classes are at a time I can’t make, unfortunately. I’ll write more about this in another post, but it seems like it’s time to bring this blog out of mothballs and back into active use…

Image Credits: Curtain Call by user tata_aka_T on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Re-evaluating René

I’m working my way through various yiquan standing positions, gradually working up to shi li exercises as and when I feel I’ve understood the essence of each zhan zhuang pose. It’s incredible how even a small shift in the position of the hands loads different muscles, ligaments, etc all the way up the arms and into the shoulders…

This morning was rather chillier than it’s been of late, but no problem. I was trying to incorporate mindfulness into my routine, with limited success. I observed the patch of sunlight on the grass grower larger as the sun rose. Pigeons launched themselves from trees and rooftops with a heavy thwack of their wings. A pair of blackbirds foraged for nesting materials. I’m not sure where exactly their nest is, but it’s close by; I’ve seen them mobbing a magpie; they obviously don’t want him knowing where the nest is either, for fear that he’ll raid the eggs later on…
The mature cherry tree has been shedding its leaves for a few days now; whenever there’s been a breeze the petals fall like snow, and form banks among the grass. As of this morning, though, it’s shedding whole blossoms instead of just petals. They’ll all be gone soon. The apple trees flowered for a couple of weeks, but have now lost pretty much all of their blossom as well.

This too will pass…

I’m still tangled up in the house move; pretty much down to cleaning now. Soon it’ll all be over. I can’t wait .

In addition to the yiquan, I’ve been reviewing my ZMQ-37 taijiquan, and my bagua lately. I’ll practise for a few more weeks and then try to take it out of the garden. There’s a “hippy shop” in town, so I’ll stick a notice up to see if anyone is interested in taiji in the park on weekend mornings… That’ll encourage me to get up out of bed, hehehehe.

There was an interesting article in the paper this weekend: How meditation might ward off the effects of ageing. I linked recently to a study showing that meditation restructures the brain; now we find that it also affects the chromosomes. What is odd about the article is how apologetic the author is about meditation, and about how the researchers are also meditators etc etc. I suspect it reflects a certain cognitive dissonance in which the author is struggling to overcome the belief that this is ‘Asian nonsense’, ‘hippy mysticism’, etc and therefore undeserving of ‘serious’ scientific consideration. After all, this kind of research surely undermines the Cartesian separation of body and mind; if that happens then a certain re-evaluation of Western thought, science and medicine has to take place. It also opens the possibility that TCM theories – derided as being ‘unscientific’ – may also be valid after all… Of course, these thoughts won’t be new to readers of this blog, but to the ‘ordinary’ Westerner, unaware of the cultural limitations of their knowledge, this could be rather threatening…

If it isn’t clear already, I rather think that such a re-evaluation is long-overdue!

There was another article, on a totally different topic, which I also thought relevant: Economics is far too important to be left in the care of academics… I mention this as it’s rather close to home; it seems to me to embody many of the current problems of western thought…

White clouds online


Going back a couple of years, I posted about trailers I’d seen for a documentary called Amongst White Clouds. It tied up with the books I’d been reading then by Red Pine, about Chinese hermits. Coincidentally, I’ve been re-reading his books recently, just as one of my old MBA fellow-students posted a link on Facebook to this site. Amongst White Clouds has been put online in segments. I haven’t had time to watch it yet, but hopefully I’ll get around to doing so soon. It reminds me of a post on ‘Hollow Men’ that I’ve been meaning to write for at least a year! Anyway, I have no idea what the copyright situation is with these clips, so I’d better hurry to watch them in case they get taken down!

Standing still, not standing still

I am still here, I just haven’t been in to mood to post much.

London was great. I was lucky, and the weather was beautiful – blue skies, and hot sunshine, mmmm! There seemed to be cherry trees in bloom everywhere, and the scent at night was heavy and soporific. Of course, the main thing was that I caught up with S again. It was wonderful; we just picked up our friendship as if we’d seen each other last week, not seven months ago. We practised zhan zhuang together in Earl’s Court, went to see Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds exhibit at the Tate Modern, and generally had a good time hanging out.

Speaking of zhan zhuang, I did quite a bit, in parks or the gardens of the Youth Hostel where I stayed. Got a few funny looks, but that’s only to be expected!

I’ve been working a lot on the standing recently, getting a fair bit done most days. I’ve been working mostly on the basic health stances, working on opening up the kua to take the pressure off my knees, and working on loosening up the achilles tendons. I’m about ready to go on to more of the shi li stances, and also practising some of the more advanced health postures. I’m finding Lam Kam Chuen’s books very useful as guides for the time being. (S and I almost wandered over to Hercules Street from the Tate Modern to check out the Lam Association offices but decided that it was too hot and a bit too far, so we went to Covent Garden instead).

One of the pleasures of the standing has been the reconnection to nature as I practice in the garden. In the early mornings I have ducks and wild geese flying low over my head. A little later, I can enjoy the songs of the blackbirds, and the hoarse calls of the crows. In early evening, the birds are all settling back down into their roosts, and I slowly hear them all go quiet, until at last the final holdouts cease their lonely songs. This is also when the bats emerge, flittering overhead in the dying light. Then, at late night practice, I listen to the owls hunt, calling each other through the darkness. Something snuffles and crunches in the darkness – a hedgehog, perhaps?

Of course, I don’t do all of these slots every day! It just depends when I have time. But it’s nice.

In the garden, the trees I’ve planted are starting to bloom. The pear tree has the most; it’s very vigorous, and has put out a lot of flowers. The cherry tree is also doing well. The apple trees may bloom later this year, or it may be that they need to establish themselves, in which case I’ll see the results next year. The first five that I planted are all already much taller; they’re prospering, it seems. Good job I put a few handfuls of concentrated manure in the hole… Tomatos, chilis, and sunflowers are all germinating… Need to get a rambling rose planted soon, and to look at getting sweetcorn, rocket, beetroots and climbing beans underway…

The house move is in progress; hopefully all will be completed soon. I need to get deposits off for the anatomy course, and for the meditation leadership course. I’ve made contact with the local group of Thich Nhat Tran’s Order of Interbeing; they should have a meeting soon, but it seems they don’t get together very frequently. There’s also a branch of the Western Chan association nearby, who meet several times a month, so I’ll get in touch with them too.

Life goes on!

Tending seeds


Well, my fingers are healing up, which is good; the dressing was getting a bit stinky, so I took it off and replaced it with normal sticking plasters, which seem to be just as effective. My Chinese students have been very concerned, and offering health advice, which I find very touching. Hurrah for Confucian values! I’m reminded again about the aspect of China that I’ve always loved – especially as none of my colleagues have felt the need to ask what happened… Meh. Frankly, I’m finding UK culture a major anticlimax. I keep telling myself that there must be more to it, but it’s well-hidden if that’s the case.

Still, don’t get me started on that, or I’ll never find time to talk about anything else!

S. is coming to the UK! That’s something to be excited about. She’ll be in London on business in a few weeks, so I’ve booked some leave to go up to the Smoke, and we’ll chill out and catch up. Got to get in shape before then to look my best 🙂 (I haven’t exercised for a couple of weeks and the weight has piled on again. I was about to work out tonight, before some crappy bad luck intervened. Carlos calls me lucky, but I say I’m as lucky as the average man or woman; it’s just that both my good and bad luck are more extreme that other people’s! Anyway, that’s a story that will wait for another time).

I’ll be in London across a weekend so, Jiang, this also might be my chance to pitch up at a systema class there. (I’ll let you know once the details are a bit firmer). Furthermore, I’ve discovered that there’s a woman in Westminster who runs Cossack dance classes; I’ll try to contact her to see if private classes are possible 🙂 Yay yay yay! Hahahahaha…

There was no taiji/bagua class this week as Eli is in Norway, so nothing to report there.

I made it down to Carmarthen last night for the systema class, which was excellent, as usual. I was so tired that I was yawning all the way through class, but there we are.

Key points… We worked on a lot of exercises that were new to me. One was pairing up; one partner lies flat on the floor, while the other does pressups, fists on the first guy’s body. The partner doing pressups gradually moves around the other’s body, fists on shin, thigh, abdomen, ribcage, shoulder, and so on… A very interesting exercise, especially as my partner weighed around 120kg. Not that it hurt; fair play, he did ‘knee’ pressups so that he didn’t put his full weight on me. Also, I couldn’t stop laughing, which kind of put him off! I can’t explain it; it was kind of a ‘ticklish’ response, ie an interrupted defence response, I suppose.

After a number of exercises, we finished up with punching drills. These were also in pairs, just trying to punch using only the weight of the arm. I thought I would be great at this, since I completely get the concept. Instead, I was pathetic. Basically, I find it really hard to hit someone who’s just standing there, so my punches were constantly going in at the wrong angle and just skimming the surface… No power at all! It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and I don’t think I would have the same problem if I really wanted to hurt someone, but still… It just goes to show that my conscious mind is not completely in control of my actions!

Which leads me to meditation; I’ve managed to sit a few times this week, and went again today to the lunchtime meditation session at work. The regular teacher can’t be there next week, so I’ll kind of be in charge (though not actually leading the meditation, only putting a CD on, but hey! Got to start somewhere!). Anyway, so, I’m out of practice, but having started again I feel once more the ‘thrill’ of good meditation, which encourages me to try harder. I was looking again at Plum Village’s website this week, and I noticed that the upper age limit for joining them is 50; I’m sure that’s changed, as I was certain they said 45 last time I looked. So, that’s still an option! I’ll be moving house again within the month; as I look around at all my things, that will have to be boxed up yet again, I feel like just throwing them in the street. Why do we collect so many objects, and invest so much emotional attachment to them? Better by far to do without!

I’ve also be working on my yiquan zhan zhuang, getting back deeper into it, and combining it with vipassana. Not finding it easy, but always reminded at just how great it is for building awareness of the body as a unit. I always feel better afterwards…

I’m making slow progress again with the Shanxi whipstaff form, after a long break. I’ve reviewed what I worked on before, and have learned a couple more moves. Slowly does it, though, and I’m still only getting towards the end of the first quarter of the sequence. It is a really nice form, though.

End-of-the-world stuff: the news today from Bahrain scares the hell out of me (read the whole article). Well, this week, I bought an ‘orchard’ – ie, five saplings of various fruit and nut varieties to plant in my parents’ garden… and I’m looking carefully through the seed catalogues for veg to plant now that spring is coming…

Mind and body


Harking back to an old post: Dojo Rat pointed out a link to research showing that meditation causes genetic change.

More recently, I found an article about more recent research: practising mindfulness meditation for 8 weeks changes the physical structure of the brain.

The staff development unit where I work runs lunchtime meditation sessions once a week; after months of meaning to go and regularly forgetting, I finally remembered and got to it last week. Fairly well attended, with guidance from one of the development staff. The hour went past very quickly, and I managed to disperse the extreme stress I was feeling before I went. Hopefully I’ll be able to make it regularly – and to use that structure to build up my home sitting as well…

As I’ve just mentioned in a comment, I’ve put up Singapore and Chinese flags in my office window, so that half the room can’t be overlooked by passers-by; I plan to use some lunch breaks to work on yiquan combined with vipassana, which I’m rather looking forward to!