Blog Archives

Arts and crafts

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Recently, I’ve been putting my tui na skills to use, treating a relative for sciatica and chronic lumbago. Of course, after only a couple of sessions it’s too soon to see lasting results. Even so, when someone who enters the room bent double in pain, holding on to chairs and tables for support, walks away upright with only a bit of a limp… well, then I really feel I’ve achieved something.

And boy, do I also feel that I’ve been working… It’s physical work, this tui na, and I soon find the perspiration running freely. I’m too stiff as I work; I do need to get into the practice of taiji and qigong again, as I’m using the muscles of my arm too much. Sometimes I get it right, though, and I transfer pressure to the patient without effort, using body weight and core energy.

This comes on top of reading Matthew Crawford’s book, The Case for Working With Your Hands, which I bought a couple of weeks ago. I find it hard to disagree with his thesis that there’s a satisfaction to be gained from using craft skills that is increasingly hard to obtain from the white-collar conceptual mind-work that I was always encouraged to pursue. Certainly, a lot of my work in the higher education sector no longer has the status it once had. Increasingly, the basic teaching of core concepts can frankly be done just as well, or even better, online; the offshoring and/or virtualisation of education provision over the internet can achieve results just as well as a lecture to 350 students. There is another side to education; the widening of horizons, the cultivation of human potential, the development of self-confidence. That’s the aspect that attracted me into the field, not being or wishing to be, a research academic. It’s getting harder and harder to do that though; the changing nature of the industry is bringing bigger and bigger classes, where it’s hard to make individual connections, while fewer and fewer students seem to want anything more than an easy path to a qualification that will help their career. I’m seeing complaints now that it’s unfair to expect the whole curriculum to be revised before exams, or to give them case studies without accompanying answers. Certainly, there isn’t the satisfaction to be had equivalent to taking someone’s pain away because you gave them treatment based on skills you’ve learned the hard way.

I was given a copy of 9000 Needles for Christmas, and I’ve watched it a couple of times now. In brief, it’s a documentary about an American body builder who is paralysed after a stroke. When his insurance runs out, he’s packed off home; his family decide to take him to China, after learning about an acupuncture treatment specifically designed for stroke victims. The documentary was made by the patient’s brother, who naturally enough doesn’t know anything about acupuncture; as a result, it’s a little frustrating that we never learn anything about the principles of the treatment itself. It’s fascinating, though, to see the huge improvements in his condition over a short period of time; it’s also very interesting to see the inner workings of a Chinese TCM hospital (the same one, as I’ve mentioned before, that runs a one-year, English-medium, acupuncture diploma course).

I have a few aches and pains of my own at the moment: a big black bruise on my thigh, and a sore hip. Yes, I went to my first systema class for almost a year last week, and had a great time. This was at Celtic Systema, the school run by Mark Winkler, who’s not long back from six months of training with Vladimir Vasiliev. We worked on breathing, ‘old man walking’, some falling and ground work (hence the sore hip: no mats), and breaking tension chains (hence the bruise on my thigh). All good fun: I’m looking forward to the next class. It was a small group, only four students plus Mark. What was interesting was that Mark and one of the other students speak Welsh, so the three of us spent a lot of the class yn siarad Cymraeg – truly, Celtic Systema!

On the old New Year’s Eve (ie, following the Julian calendar), I went out with the local Mari Lwyd, and not for the first time by any means. It was filmed, so here’s what I mean:

I arrived shortly after this, so I don’t appear in the clip. It’s important to keep traditions alive – and truly alive. It’s a danger that they lose their vitality, become relics that are paraded around reverently, no longer inhabiting their true role in our psyche. The thing is, the Mari Lwyd, traditionally, is a force of chaos, an element of Saturnalia when all roles are turned upside down. Read the folklore, and the Mari runs around, chasing women and making children scream in delighted terror, respecting nobody. Know this, and that mare’s skull is full of a potent personality, waiting for the right bearer through whom it can come alive. Keith Johnstone, in his book Impro, has a lot to say about masks and trance, and the ability of a mask to ‘possess’ its wearer (I’ve put my copy somewhere I can’t find it, else I would quote). Anyway, what I’ve getting to is that I wore the Mari to the next pub we visited and, as someone said to me with a raised eyebrow the next day, I was “in character”. Someone else told me that they laughed until they cried, and the manager gave me a free pint, that’s all I can say…

Right now, I’m working through Bella Merlin’s Stanislavsky Toolkit; there’s an awful lot in there about breathing and movement that can very easily be related to systema, a link I’ve made before…

As they say: never a dull moment…

Hilarion

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This post is just playing around with some ideas; you’ll probably want to skip it if you’re interested in the martial arts etc that I normally write about.

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My hometown developed around a river bridge. Originally, the bridge was part of the main Roman military highway stretching westwards to the Irish Sea. It lay between some important forts, and we know from the archaeological evidence that some elements of Legio II Augusta were present in the first and second centuries AD. The town’s location would have led it to prosper, and we know that there were several major villa estates in the area. The archaeological remains also suggest that the town became a centre for industrial-scale metalworking. Over the centuries of the Roman presence, life became settled, and the legionaries were withdrawn, back to the major camps. Changes in Imperial technology and military requirements eventually led to the classic legions becoming redundant; the focus shifted to mobile, cavalry-based forces.

The river runs through the town, and makes its way in a large curve to the sea a couple of miles away. The river valley is deep and steep, so from the town the sea seems a long way away. It’s not, though, and it actually doesn’t take all that long to reach the estuary by foot. There’s always been a reasonable little harbor at that estuary – at least, until the whole area was reconfigured for major industrial developments in the 20th century.

I very often walk up the remnants of that old Roman highway. It’s been bypassed now by a modern road, and is an overgrown country lane, with an uneven rock surface that’s the remains of the old road core. It rises up to the top of one of the highest local hills, and then continues, arrow-straight. The odd thing is that another little lane leaves it at the hilltop, going at a right angle in the direction of the sea. It arrives at a small village, leading directly to the old manor house, and then straight onwards to the old vicarage – a house sited on the edge of the escarpment, and from where there is a view down along the length of the river valley. From there, you can’t see either the sea or the town, but you can see most of what’s in-between. It’s interesting to note that on old maps this area is named ‘The Cross’. The local church, right next to the manor, is dedicated to Hilarion – rather an uncommon saint.

That side road is very definitely ancient, and has the same kind of surface as the main Roman road. Its straightness is unusual in a country lane. Taken together, that makes me think that it must also be Roman. Why would it be there? Well, we know that by the third century, the Western coast of Britain was suffering from increasingly aggressive raiding from Ireland. Indeed, the Irish began to colonize south-west and north-west Wales. A tower built where the manor house later was would have an excellent view of the sea and that little harbor. It’s the perfect place to have a lookout; if anything was sited, riders could have been sent to warn the town long before raiders made their way up the valley. Would the town have been a target? Of course! It was wealthy and, to the Irish, a source of worked iron and steel would surely have been irresistible. The site of the old vicarage would have been the perfect place to have observe the progress of any raiders, and to launch a mounted attack at the moment of choice. But why the uncommon saint’s name? Why was the site named ‘The Cross’ before it became a vicarage?

A story takes shape in my mind, of my town in the dying days of Roman Britain. We know that there’s no evidence of occupation after the fourth century; the site wasn’t settled again until the Normans arrived. We know that the Irish took the whole area by storm during ‘The Great Conspiracy’: in the latter part of the fourth century, Roman Britain was assaulted from three directions simultaneously as the Irish, the Picts, and the Saxons united to attack this island prize. The Romans were driven back to what is now the south-east of England. With reinforcements from the continent, they eventually reasserted their control over the whole of the province – but what would they have found as they fought their way back into the occupied areas?

I can imagine a dawn when the citizens of my town woke to an ordinary morning. Their town was still prosperous. Life had been undisturbed under Roman rule for centuries. Grandfathers complained that things weren’t as good as during the days of their youth – the currency was increasingly debased, there were more and more new taxes, free men were being forced into serfdom, the Irish raiders seem bolder each year further down the coast while the soldiers were fewer and fewer (especially as more and more generals declared themselves to be the Emperor and marched their armies away to inglorious defeat). But old men always grumble.

Perhaps the first warning they had were the war cries of the raiders who had slipped up the valley from the estuary during the night. Perhaps a rider came galloping down from the lookout tower, who knows? There may have been a small cavalry unit there, who fought until they were overwhelmed or, more likely, most of them had already been called away to deal with trouble elsewhere. Whatever happened, the town couldn’t be saved.

By the end of the day, the town was in flames. Many of the men were dead. Women and children had been carted away to the boats to become slaves, along with valuables, stocks of metal, and livestock.

Some of the survivors banded together in an old Iron Age hillfort, which remained occupied and fortified through the Dark Ages. Others would have fled to the lookout tower and cavalry post in search of safety, and settled within and around its walls. Devastated, ruined, they may have chosen to build a church dedicated to Hilarion, the ascetic saint who was attacked by thieves – thieves who left him alone and even repented of their evil ways for attacking a man so much poorer than themselves, a man who had nothing left for them to take. Surely a fitting patron for the remnants of a prosperous community, who have lost everything, while raiders from the sea remain a constant threat. Such a traumatized group may have raised a stone cross in the old observation post above the valley, praying that this holy symbol might deter the Irish where horses, swords and spears had failedโ€ฆ.

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Those who have been reading for a while will see where I’m going with this. All around us, the signs increase to show that our society and economy are under increasing stress – stress that is becoming unsustainable. Peak resources, environmental degradation, climate change, sovereign debt, corruption, and the elevation of special interestsโ€ฆ Like the ancient burghers of my hometown, so many of their modern equivalents become gradually inured to the changes, forgetting that, once, it really was better. One day, though, it might all fall apart. That day could be soon. Based on the information available I would put 2014-15 as the key period, as that is when oil production will really start to drop off – which means that the price of EVERYTHING will rocket. That’s when things will get really ugly.

Plan. Be prepared. Be ready.

The Flashing Blade

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The Flashing Blade was a cheesy Euro-drama – made in France, and later dubbed into English – that I absolutely adored during… I guess it would have been the late 70s? Rapiers, damsels in distress, noble heroes and wicked baddies, as many swashes being buckled as you like… Ahhhhh, it was all so simple then…

Anyway, two slightly different points of view:

Maija at Sword and Circle says:

So much of why you do what you do, especially the way you hold the weapon and the way it moves in space comes down to blade and handle design and how that ‘interacts’ with human anatomy.

Over at Internal Kung Fu, Nicholas Waller* writes:

When Yang Lu-chan popularised tai chi by teaching it to the Manchu Emperor’s palace guards, he probably taught sword forms.
Why?
Because in 1850 it may have been a well-used weapon in China.
Yang Lu-chan’s purpose in teaching sword would have been for self defence, for viable, practical martial purposes.

150 years later…
In the UK nobody carries a sword.
You are unlikely to be attacked by a sword and you are unlikely to be carrying a sword yourself.
The police are not happy with members of the public owning or using swords.

and

We do not teach the broadsword as a self defence tool. Sifu Waller has no interest in training or teaching sword forms and drills.

Hmm.

Clearly, these two points of view agree on the basics; the sword forms of taiji, bagua, and xingyi were developed by people who lived in dangerous times and needed to perfect weapon forms for their own survival. The question is: do these forms have any meaningful purpose today, or are they just an historical legacy that’s beautiful in its own right but – due to social and technological changes – now obsolete.

Well…

I wrote a year or two ago about the Sikh martial art of gatka. That came to mind as I heard about one of the stories from the recent riots in England, where the Sikhs of Enfield came out to defend their gurdwara.

Personally, I’ve got a lot of time for Sikhs, having known them in Singapore. Watch various videos on YouTube about these guys in Enfield, and you’ll see a few swords in evidence. As one the men in the clip says: “Why aren’t the police here? Can you see any police?“.

Even before the riots, there was a change in the air, evident when a man who fatally stabbed a burglar was not charged.

I’m sorry if this is becoming too much of a regular refrain, but I think that hard times are coming. This isn’t the US; we don’t have a gun culture here, and thank goodness for that. Nevertheless, flash mob crimes are increasingly happening both here and there, organised, I’m guessing, by people who have experience of commanding raiding parties in MMPORPGs (though the media don’t seem to have picked up on this; and I have to say I have no evidence beyond a gut feeling). Here’s an example:

Don’t know. Really, I don’t know. Maybe it was all a one-off, and things will go back to what we used to call normal. But, I read economic data and news ever day, and I see no sign of that – quite the contrary. Here’s a great article from The Oil Drum; it lays out clearly how Peak Oil means that economic growth is a thing of the past. How will that work out? No-one can be sure yet, but the signs we see so far are of mass civil unrest.

So… Is training in the sword, and other weapons forms obsolete? I’m not at all convinced of that. I think they may still have a future. Maybe not as an everyday individual piece of equipment – but it may be that those of us who study martial arts will need to step up and use that knowledge as part of our communities.

(NB not so long ago, McDonald’s in the US held a national hiring day, and were overwhelmed with applications – to the extent that violence broke out between applicants in some places. I saw something about that on YouTube, and noticed that many of the people in the clip were carrying golf clubs. At first that struck me as strange, since the US after all is a gun culture. After a while, I concluded that although many of these people probably did have guns, they carried golf clubs so that they could engage in self-defence at an intermediate level, when drawing a firearm was just too risky. I’d be interested to hear what readers from the US think about that).

* Not to be disrespectful in any way, but I don’t call anyone sifu unless I’ve accepted them as my personal martial arts mentor and teacher.

Working on the basics


As I was standing in the garden yesterday morning, a flight of wild geese flew over the treeline, not all that far above my head. There were about twenty of them, honking to each other in a leisurely conversation, on their way somewhere…

As it turned out, I was in the garden quite a lot. Two sessions of zhan zhuang: one early afternoon, with the sun warm (for once!) on my face, the other approaching midnight, with a full-ish moon and the stars clear and bright. I also spent a while planting herbs on the bank of the garden; once they’ve taken, I should be able to do my meditations and standing practice with their scent in the fresh air… I remember vividly what it was like to stand in zhan zhuang when I visited Qingbiankou in Hebei Province, with the herb-scented breeze flowing down from the hills… Quite an experience… Finally, I lifted the first of my potatoes… A rather disappointing crop so far, but I bet they’ll taste nice this evening…

Not what you’re expecting from a martial arts blog, perhaps… But wait…

There was a car boot sale behind the town hall yesterday morning, and I strolled down to take a look. I ended up buying a bunch of books, and four chili pepper plants. I’m not sure what type they are, but the peppers look as if they’ll be rather small, which suggests they’ll be hot! (Oh, and I ordered some sichuan pepper bushes from an online garden supplier; give it a year or two, and I’ll be able to prepare my own ma la mix with entirely home-grown ingredients!). Anyway, as I walked down, I found myself being greeted by shopkeepers standing in their doorways and passersby… People I went to school with, or I regularly shop with, or who drink in the same local pub as me, or even just are faces I see regularly… It was a good feeling.

What’s this got to do with anything, you may be asking. Well, it’s been a crazy week, world-wide, hasn’t it? The US downgraded; even so, things will get worse there, because there’s no money left. As I’ve mentioned several times before, in the US, government at every level is broke, and will have to stop its operations. In Euroland, there’s no respite as governments try to find a solution to sovereign debt – but they won’t, because there is no good solution. And, in London, the cracks started to show, as the streets burned, and the police barely held the line. It’s all quiet again now, but the problems are not going away.

Behind all this lies resource scarcity. Oil, food, water, minerals, whatever. It’s all costing more than it did, and that’s only going to get worse. In London, Minnesota, the Middle East, Africa, China… those who have nothing are finding it hard to cope as the costs of living rise… Those who have something will become ever more desperate to hang on to it…

So, it’s a good time to go back to examine basics. The targets I set myself, and described on this blog, a year or so back are proving to be sound ones. I’m re-establishing myself in a strong community, where people know and look out for each other. I’m getting familiar with how the garden works; reading my books to learn about the medicinal values of herbs and spices, so that I can decide which to plant… And working on the martial arts and meditation, to build mental and physical resilience…

At the top, the photo is of London Sikhs, who gathered to protect their gurdwara from the mob; standing on the steps with swords, axes, and sticks. Perhaps that kind of thing will become more common.

The virtues of a long memory

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Well, things have been a bit intense lately; lots happening at work. We’ve also had a month of absolutely horrible weather, with unseasonable cold, strong winds that have seen off a lot of my recently-planted veg and flowers. Combine the two, and I’ve been very slack in my practice again. Thankfully, we’ve got some sunny weather again, and my spirits are rising: time to get out there and at it, there’s no time to waste now.

I should say something about what’s been going on in various spheres….

  • Taiji and bagua with Eli Montaigue: I put this temporarily on hold as I moved home, and ‘temporarily’ stretched to the point where the group would be so far ahead of me on the form that it wouldn’t be worth re-joining the class at this point. He does Thursday-night ‘application’ classes’ and that might be worth thinking about, but July is going to be frantic, so I’ll leave any decisions until August.
  • Systema: I was really enjoying the classes but, now that
    I’ve moved, they are too far away. The founder of the Celtic Systema school, Mark Winkler, is still in Canada, where he’s training for six months with Vladimir Vasiliev. He’ll be back at the end of August, and will be starting a new group in Swansea, where I work. I’ll leave the systema on hold until then.
  • Capoeira: Some of you will have seen on Twitter and
    Facebook that I’ve been attending capoeira classes. I’d realized that due to stress etc I’ve put on a lot of weight again; plus, for all the virtues of my hometown, it can be difficult to develop a busy social life. So, I thought I’d give capoeira a try again: very aerobic, plus lots of interesting people. It turned out to be true in both fields ๐Ÿ˜€ However.. I ran into the same things that caused me problems when I tried capoeira before: the principles of capoeira are competely alien to the principles of neijia, for one. That, I could probably adapt to; the other problem is that capoeira isn’t just a dance/martial art, it’s a lifestyle; the hard core expect you to get really into the music, the songs, the culture… and tend to get a bit pissy if you’re not as into all that as they are… In any case, as I say, July is going to be crazy busy, so I’ll defer any decision there, but I suspect capoeira is a non-starter. Pity, because there are some really nice people in that group.

Instead, it’s back to neijia… I’ve bought a wushu spear from Amazon, and have been moving from developing power with the zhan zhuang to testing it out with a xingyi spear form. This has been interesting; I can get the spear to bend more often than not; when I first bought a spear in Singapore, I certainly couldn’t, so there’s definitely been an improvement. I’m enjoying this, as with the spear the application of power is visible, so I know for sure whether or not it’s working.

In Jess O’Brian’s excellent book, Nei Jia Quan, there’s an interview with Tim Cartmell; he argues that there’s no difference between the three styles of taiji, xingyi, and bagua – they are just different ways of expressing the same principles. I’m going to go with that – I know for sure that in Beijing, my taiji improved dramatically after yiquan classes. So, I’m still focussing principally on yiquan, but I’ll be testing out the principles with the other three as well. Who knows, once I’m happy with my xingyi spear form, perhaps I’ll have a go at Sun Zhijun’s bagua spear form that Kim reminded me of recently ๐Ÿ™‚

In other areas,I’m getting a real sense of urgency now. Globally, events seem to be accelerating towards a crisis. Greece and the Eurozone are staggering onwards, but the crisis is only temporarily contained. In the US, there’s bickering and posturing while the debt ceiling remains unresolved, natural disasters pile one upon the other, and state governments grind to a halt as their money runs out…

Here in the UK, there are also storm clouds building up. The government’s austerity program is just starting to be felt, and there are the first strikes and protests in response. There are also reports that crimes against property are rising again. The university sector, where I work, is heading for a pummeling as well, and there are rumours of redundancies coming…

So, dunno; I just get the feeling that bad times are going to hit soon; not this year, maybe next, or the one after that…

An anecdote: perhaps ten years ago, my parents and I were walking back home through a patch of parkland that lay between our house and the town centre. It’s unlit; not a problem for us, as we are so familiar with the path we don’t need to see our way. On the way, we met a rather jumpy policeman. Once he’d established that we were respectable citizens, we had a chat. He’d recently been transferred from a nearby large town. He was amazed; he’d been in our town for over a week, and nobody had tried to stab him… There are a lot of pretty deprived communities nearby, and nothing much has changed since then.

I also remember that in the last severe recession there were a lot of burglaries in our street. We didn’t get broken into – largely, I suspect, because we had a dog. I’m going to think a lot about defensive gardening now (don’t laugh!). Mmmm… time to plant sichuan peppers and roses… Spiky but useful…

Anyway, that’s why I refer to memory in the title for this post. I look at my students, and they’ve only ever known economic boom times; this downturn could be very hard on their age group. At least I have some memory of bad times to draw on…

Starting Monday, I’ll be working on qualifying to teach English as a foreign language. It’s a four-week course; very intensive, so expect radio silence here. It’s necessary for my job, but it’s also going to be really useful if things go pear-shaped at the university…

Mind and body


Re-reading (once again) Robert W Smith’s account of his time in Taiwan, Chinese Boxing, I note this passage in the chapter about the policeman Paul Kuo:

Kuo told me also of Wang Hsiang-Chai, famed but not liked in Hopei. Wang loved to fight and lost only to Shang Yun-hsiang. His method consisted entirely of circles; every block was an attack.

Heh. Wang Xianghai keeps on cropping up in books that I’ve had for ages, but I’d never noticed before…

I’ve just got back from a couple of days in Brighton, where I was taking a foundation course in leading mindfulness and meditation training. As I’ve mentioned before, once I’ve completed this qualification, I will be able to register for professional insurance, and to run training sessions for the public, as well as for patients referred by GPs (though at this point this latter isn’t something I plan to do).

It was a small group: myself, another bloke, and four women. We were a pretty mixed bag, from very different backgrounds, and with varied reasons for doing the course. We all got on very well, though, and I think that some of us got very involved with the experience.

It was certainly interesting, and definitely challenging. Although I’ve had a fair bit of experience in meditation since 2004, it has always been a personal thing; apart from here on the blog – which has a certain feeling of detachment and distance, since I’ve met so few of you in person – I rarely talk about it in real life. In Singapore and China, meditation was well understood, and even close to the mainstream; and abiding memory is New Year’s Eve, 2007, when I attended the 108 Bells ceremony at the Bright Hill monastery – where there were hundreds of people. Here in Wales… it’s not the same; I tend to not talk about it, since meditation falls into that extremely broad category of ‘weird’, as far as most folk are concerned…

Still, I was very surprised at how difficult it was to stand up and act as a leader in the practice, even when the ‘students’ were also course participants. Talking about the benefits of meditation in front of a group of strangers was surprisingly tough. However, I got into it fairly quickly, though all weekend I found it tough to control my voice in the way I’m used to doing as a lecturer. There you are, the mind-body connection in action…

We went through a fair bit of training as a group, learning how to explain the benefits of meditation for both mental and physical health, and ran through a number of “3-minute convincers” – exercises designed to demonstrate rapidly the mind-body link to people who might be sceptical. We also went through a number of group meditation sessions. There were also, of course, sessions where we had to lead people through a meditation exercise and into deep relaxation. The first two were 1-1 with another student; the second was to lead the whole group. For the first, I used a qigong visualisation that I learned in Singapore; while I was talking the other student through it, I felt that it just wasn’t working, but when we’d finished, she said that it had been really effective. For the second 1-1, I used a basic yiquan visualisation exercise tied to zhan zhuang. It wasn’t a great success, since I hadn’t checked for contra-indications. Fortunately, that session was only for a couple of minutes, and she was straight up about telling me she couldn’t do it. For the final session, with the whole group, I had ten minutes, and took care to point out the options for hand and arm positions; I then went through the ‘standing in the water’ visualisation for the holding the ball exercise. Again, I felt as I was doing it, that it really wasn’t working – but, when I finished, it got really good feedback. Even the course instructor mentioned that it anchored her in the body in a way that no other exercise she knew was able to do. Just goes to show: yiquan rocks ๐Ÿ˜‰

Another exercise was where the instructor, using her experience of working with patients referred by doctors, gave us an example of what it’s like to work with non-cooperative participants. In my case, she play-acted an agoraphobic woman, who hid her face under her jumper, and wouldn’t look at me or even talk. Blimey. That was hard. It showed me how complex it is it work with the genuinely ill, rather than simply those who have disposable income and are looking for help with relaxation…

It was a pretty stressful weekend overall. I was staying in London on Thursday and Friday nights; on Friday I got back to the hostel at 20:15ish, to discover that they had made a mistake on the computer, deleted my booking, and given my room to someone else… And no, they didn’t have another… I can now tell you with absolute certainty, that trying to find a room with no booking, late on a Friday night in London, really is not what you need if you were looking forward to a night out, or even for a quiet, relaxing evening….

There were other issues too… but nothing to do with the course itself. Very glad I did it; I learned a great deal and met some wonderful people. It isn’t over yet; I need to keep a daily meditation diary for a few weeks, write some book reviews, and record myself running a meditation session with ‘real’ people before I get the qualification. I may post the book reviews here.

It was a great confidence-booster, though; I start to believe that yes, I can teach this stuff – not just blog about it….

And so my plans make progress… Big job losses are happening in communities in my area… It looks like a wave of redundancies are coming in the organization where I work… Catching up today on the last few days’ news, it’s clear that changes are happening more and more rapidly, and none of them are good. Got to be ready…

Preparations

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I don’t believe in any of the nonsense about Mayan Calendars, ancient prophecies, or suchlike. Not one bit. Nevertheless, actual economic and scientific data does increasingly indicate that 2012 is going to be a crunch year.

Here in Europe, the sovereign debt crisis totters onwards, with various countries totally unable to pay off what they owe. However, to admit this would bring the banking system crashing down. Already, mass protests are underway, and those will get worse as governments cut spending harder. The dry weather in April is causing crop failures here in the UK, and perhaps elsewhere. Local government is redefining what a ‘pothole’ is, because they haven’t actually got the money to repair the roads.

In North Africa and the Middle East, things are getting less and less stable. I learned this week that as of next year, Saudi Arabia will run out of fossil water, and as a consequence will cease all domestic production of wheat and other irrigated crops. That means that all 30 million Saudis will be totally dependent on imported food. Not exactly an incentive for them to see lower oil prices, is it? Next door, Yemen is about to collapse completely, having run out of both water and oil. That means the approach to the Red Sea, and thus the Suez canal, will be flanked by two totally failed states.

China? Drought, crop failures, and nationwide shortages of electricity. Inflation. Rising wages and violation of intellectual property leading to manufacturers moving out of China to other countries. Rampant corruption and abuses of power. Rising expectations meeting limits to growth causes dissent and increased repression.

The US? A political system unable to engage with the real world. Huge unemployment. Unpayable debts and a still-collapsing property market. Fossil water also running out in the mid-West. A great unravelling.

Plus, the International Energy Agency confirming that we’ve hit peak oil.

If there’s a way for this to all come right, I hope someone can direct me to it. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening.

I don’t say all this as a cry of despair. It’s just that, looking clearly at the available data, it seems inescapable that the economic system that we have developed over recent decades has gone as far as it can. A change is coming, a great simplification. It’s going to be a difficult transition. (if you have 90 minutes available, I recommend watching Dmitry Orlov’s presentation to the Long Now Foundation, Social Collapse Best Practices).

As I’ve been saying for a while now, it’s a time to be building up social networks; to be learning how local production of food works, and to be doing what you can on that. It’s a time to be building up skills, and knowledge, and inventory.

Let me be clear, I’m not a survivalist! I don’t advocate bunkers full of ammo and tinned food. What’s coming is what John Michael Greer calls ‘Catabolic Collapse‘, a radical simplification – but not a Mad Max-style total collapse. We’ll still have government, we’ll still have our systems, but they’ll be much less complex than they are today.

Rather, I think this is the time to be stocking up on the things you might need, and won’t be able to get, once global trade, and the banks, stop working. In my case, as I’ve mentioned before, it means getting in training and qualifications that might be useful once the Higher Education system collapses. Planting trees, and stocking up on seeds. And, most relevant to this blog, acquiring knowledge in the form of books, DVDs, etc that will help me to continue expanding my knowledge while they’re still available. Thus, I’ve been spending a lot of money lately. I’ll start putting up some initial reviews soon. This is all happening faster than I originally expected – I thought a year ago that 2015 would be the crunch year, but it seems not.

Of course, I could be wrong about this – it could all work out and, indeed, I know that I tend to look very much at the negative side of things. But hey, if I’m wrong all that happens is that I will have rapidly built up a collection of skills, resources, and material that I wanted and would probably have acquired at some point anyway. And if I’m right, good luck to anyone who hasn’t prepared.

And now, I’m going to dig up more of the garden for planting ๐Ÿ™‚

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

6

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 ๐Ÿ™‚ (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 ๐Ÿ™‚ 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…

Washing the hair

2

Last week’s Tuesday night class was pretty cool. I started off with a bit of push hands, partnered with one of Eli’s long-term students. That was interesting; I found it hard to get back into the taiji spirit, being far more inclined to use yiquan’s more assertive methods. Got to remember to relax…

That was while we were waiting for Eli to arrive, after which we began the bagua class. We moved on to learn a new palm change; it’s one per week, no hanging about here. Which is not to say that we’re rushing, either, the hour is enough to learn the new move, and to integrate it with what’s gone before. Eli demonstrates a few applications of what we’ve just learned, and shows something of the difference between the form and the real-world usage. I’m getting happier with my stepping, and am finding it useful to visualize the various axes(as in: plural of axis, not hatchets – that would be weird!) around which the body turns during circle-walking. It’s all good…

After that, we go straight into the taiji class. We go through a section of the long form as a group, and then everyone practices the last thing they learned while Eli goes around giving feedback. Again, all good. I definitely note that I’ve got more tense since I moved back to Wales, but now that I’ve started practicing zhan zhuang again I hope that’ll sort itself out. I got a half-hour of that combined with vipassana fitted in instead of lunch this afternoon, and felt much better afterwards.

The following night, I made it again to systema class. That was a great session. The bulk of it was spent in two groups, with one group ‘assaulting’ the other with light slaps and punches to the face and head. To begin with, the people being attacked simply had to protect themselves by keeping their elbows up and their hands sliding around their scalp in a ‘washing the hair’ movement. Later, we moved on to moving around so as not to retreat, and then finally counter-attacking with elbows and kicks. We finished up with a pair exercise, holding each other’s right forearm, and trying to use our feet and legs, sensing where your partner’s weight was so as to uproot him. It was all rather cool; certainly the experience of facing someone wading in towards you as you take hits to the head (even if the force is pulled) is a very valuable exercise in maintaining calmness under pressure…

Unfortunately, the workshop I mentioned was yesterday, not next Sunday as I’d thought. I had a family commitment that took precedence, so I didn’t get to meet Mark; next chance will be in six months, after he gets back from Canada!

Good. I’m enjoying this mix. I’ve had to stop the kettlebell exercise temporarily since I’m not getting back from work until late, but hopefully I should be able to start again soon… Next target then will be to start the shanxi whipstaff again…

More on ‘end-of-the world’ planning; the economic news doesn’t look so good, so I continue to research ‘useful’ skills for when the world starts getting less flat… I should be going on my deferred blacksmithing course next month, and I’m looking into picking up tui na training in the UK. I’m not sure if I will be able to get the time off, but this anatomy and physiology class – a prerequisite for basic tuina training – looks like a possibility… Maria Mercati seems to be pretty well-known…