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Twelve (years between) monkeys

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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 ย number of signs and portents are suggesting I should take these signs seriously.

 

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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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The Blue Room


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I recently moved into a new place, as I described on my main blog. ย 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.

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 ๐Ÿ™‚

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.

Getting started again

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Well, now that I’m in my own place, it’s time to start putting a routine together.

So far, I’ve started with meditation; half an hour, morning and evening. I’m alternating between sitting, and standing in zhan zhuang. I time it by playing some on S. N. Goenka’s chanting which, if you’ve ever taken one of his vipassana retreats you’ll know, are Pali sutras and a fond part of my memories of Thailand!

I’m waiting for my gym mats to arrive from Amazon, at which point I can start working on cardio, flexibility, and endurance; the plan is to start the basic routines from Scott Sonnon’s Flowfit I and II, gradually increasing the difficulty level over the next few weeks, and then blending in yiquan practice and more elements from my systema DVDs. I want to start work on a weapon form as well, just bit by bit, but I’m not sure which one yet.

Once I feel I’m in good shape again, I’ll review the routine.

Last night I went to a taijiquan class with Eli Montaigue, who teaches “Old Yang” style. I’ll go to a few more classes before I write anything much about this, but I enjoyed it and liked what I saw.

In theory, all my stuff will arrive from China later today – including my swords, deerhook knives, pan guan bi etc etc… I need to see where I can buy a sword rack…

Meditation


I said I would write about the retreat in Thailand. It was only a couple of weeks ago, and yet already seems a distant memory!

So, here are the basics. I went on a 10-day retreat in Prachinburi, a couple of hours’ drive from Bangkok. The retreat was at one of S. N. Goenka‘s network of schools. This was the third time I’d been to this centre; the first was in February 2004, the second in June 2005.

The daily routine goes like this:

  • 4:00 a.m.Morning wake-up bell
  • 4:30-6:30 a.m Meditate in the hall or in your room
  • 6:30-8:00 a.m. Breakfast break
  • 8:00-9:00 a.m. Group meditation in the hall
  • 9:00-11:00 a.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
  • 11:00-12:00 noon Lunch break
  • 12 noon-1:00 p.m. Rest, and interviews with the teacher
  • 1:00-2:30 p.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room
  • 2:30-3:30 p.m. Group meditation in the hall
  • 3:30-5:00 p.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
  • 5:00-6:00 p.m. Tea break
  • 6:00-7:00 p.m Group meditation in the hall
  • 7:00-8:15 p.m. Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
  • 8:15-9:00 p.m. Group meditation in the hall
  • 9:00-9:30 p.m. Question time in the hall
  • 9:30 p.m. Retire to your room; lights out

As you can see, this means around 10.5 hours of meditation every day. The students sit cross-legged on cushions for this – there’s no walking meditation in this school, unlike some other vipassana schools. For the entire 10-day period, students observe Noble Silence – complete silence, and an avoidance of any other communication with other attendees, such as eye contact. We give up all reading and writing materials, phones, computers, mp3 players etc to the centre staff before the course begins, so there are no distractions.

Some of the sessions are group sittings, where everyone comes together in the main dharma hall. In the other sessions, students are free to stay in the hall, or meditate in their bedroom (where I don’t doubt that some grab a crafty extra bit of sleep!). As I mentioned previously, students who have already attended a course are allocated their own personal meditation cell adjoining the dharma hall. I had one, and this is where I practised zhan zhuang, but I’ll come to that later.

The course has a teacher, who is available to answer questions, but most of the instruction is given by Goenkaji, via recordings that are played in the group sittings. Many sessions also begin and end with recordings of Goenkaji chanting sutras in Pali. The evening discourses are video recordings of Goenkaji explaining what the students have done so far, highlighting challenges that students are likely to have faced on each day (based on his experience of having personally run thousands of courses; there are very clear patterns in student experiences), encouraging the students, and telling stories of the Buddha. The main thing is that these discourses are funny; pretty much everyone regards them as the highlight of the course!

The first few days of the course are spent performing anapana meditation. This is an observation of the breath, which allows the students to calm their minds. It’s also the part of the course which trains the students in the long hours of sitting. It’s always a bit of a struggle, but on this course I had great difficulty. From the very first hour of sitting, I was troubled by very disturbing mental images, and found it impossible to calm my mind, or to relax into the sitting. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, by the way; a major part of the philosophy of the technique is that once the mind is no longer distracted by daily routine, it’s free to start purging ‘mental toxins’ (my phrase, not the course’s) that have accumulated. Not everyone would have this bad experience, and indeed I didn’t have anything like it on my previous retreats. In retrospect, it’s clear that this was down to the fact that the five years since my last retreat have often been stressful and unhappy, so there was a lot of accumulated crap to be cleared out!

At the time, however, I suffered! By the fourth day, I was ready to quit. They’re very strict about this; everyone has to agree before the course begins that once they’ve started they will last the duration, since quitting halfway through without completing the process can cause problems. I was getting ready to fight my way out if necessary, and was making plans on how to use the rest of the vacation; I stayed, because that evening’s discourse was spot on in addressing the experience I was having, and encouraged me to persevere.

By this time, I was getting really drowsy; as I mentioned in a previous post, I had a major sleep debt from the previous few months, which I hadn’t managed to clear before beginning the course. In the morning and noon breaks, I would be sleeping; in the afternoon break I did mindful walking in the gardens, sneaking in a bit of tang ni bu now and then, and contributing to the centres’s chores (which only repeat students are allowed to do) by sweeping the paths clear of leaves (and bursting into a bit of improvised bagua gunfa in the process when I thought no-one was looking).

The next, and main phase of the program, is the vipassana itself. Here the students observe the body’s sensations, including the physical pain of the sitting, in a calm and detached manner, not allowing themselves to become attached to any of them, and remaining mindful that everything passes. There are several periods in which the students are not supposed to move at all, no matter how uncomfortable they are – but in my woozy and still-stressed state, i couldn’t do it (but again, in past retreats, I have. Every time is different; it depends what you take in to it). This is the period in which most people have their breakthroughs, as the accumulated sankharas, the stored-up emotions and memories that are the seeds of future karma, rise to the surface of the mind and – since the mind no longer attaches to them – lose their power. On my first retreat, I had a very powerful breakthrough in this phase; this time round it also happened, but in a much more subdued manner. By this time, I was finding it very difficult to sit, so during the individual sessions, I was standing in zhan zhuang in my cell. This really helped, and I made progress both in the meditation, and in the effectiveness of my standing. Bonus! By the last few days, i was able to do the sitting meditation comfortably as well.

One of the techniques in the vipassana phase is the passing of the mind through the body, in order to observe sensations. At times, i could really feel my qi moving strongly, following my mind. On one occasion, my mind was able to get into my internal organs, especially the lungs, liver (which suddenly felt like a large bag of warm goop), and my kidneys (which tickled). That seemed to kick off a detox, as my urine was very yellow for the next couple of days. It didn’t happen again. It reinforced my understanding of the connections between mind and body, meditation and qigong, and the relationship of those to certain martial arts, and I’m going to have to order my thoughts in order to write about that next.

On the last day, the course finishes by introducing metta meditation, the projection of compassion to all living beings. This is what the course teacher and helpers are doing for most of the course duration.

Once Noble Silence ends, the students are free to talk, to share experiences and get to know one another before the trip back to Bangkok. There’s always a good mix of people; on this occasion there were Americans, Canadians, Chinese, Israelis, Russians, and Hungarians, as well as the Thais, of course. This particular group seem to have bonded more strongly than the other courses I’ve been on, and we’re keeping in touch.

Since I’ve been back in Beijing, my feet barely seem to have touched the ground, I’ve been so busy, but I manage to do fairly frequent standing sessions. I’ve also meeting up once a week for a sitting session with S, who attended the same retreat. On one of these occasions, I really felt a strong connection fire up between an acupuncture point on the front of my abdomen and the ming men point at the base of the back, followed by strong movement of qi around the small heavenly circle.

Although I really found this retreat very difficult, it did clear out massive amounts of accumulated stress and unhappiness; I’ve been feeling much happier since I came back, and people have told me I look years younger.Once work settles down a bit, I do want to start sitting more frequently.

Of course, bear in mind that on each of the three times I’ve attended a retreat, I’ve had a very different experience, and every students’ experience is different depending on what mental baggage they take in with them. This is just what I experienced on this occasion.

I will go on more retreats in the future, though; the teaching and practice of vipassana meditation as a tool for clearing out the seeds of future karma, leading ultimately getting off the wheel of rebirth, is a path I don’t intend to leave, even if my practice is spotty.

Back to brown

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I’m back…

I had a great holiday, thanks for asking ๐Ÿ˜‰

I started with a nice 10 days in Singapore, where I happily had the chance to catch up with Pern Yiau, Jono, Carlos, and Kim, amongst others, and had some great conversations. I bought a lot of books, of which you may hear more.

Then, off to Thailand for two weeks: a few days in Bangkok, which were wonderful, and then a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat: 10 days of absolute silence, rising at 4am, and 9 hours of meditation every day… This is the third time I’ve done one of these retreats, and it was by far the toughest; very gruelling, physically and emotionally. I’m really glad I did it (though I nearly quit on day 3!), and I’ve been told I look five years younger… Sweet ๐Ÿ™‚

I landed yesterday in Beijing, which is cold and smoggy, and everything looks grey or brown ๐Ÿ™ Sigh… I want to go back to Thailand right now, it was so colourful and invigorating…..

OK, back to reading all the email that’s accumulated over the past month…

10 days to change my genes


Aahhh… I received an email last night: confirmation that I have a place on a 10-day Vipassana retreat in Thailand. This is run by S. N. Goenka’s Foundation. I’ve been twice before – in 2005 (when I didn’t benefit much, having busted my Achilles Tendon shortly before), and in 2004 (which was an amazing experience, as I’ve written here many times!). Four and a half years on (AAAAAHHHHHHH! Where did the time go????) I am definitely ready for another period of intense practice!

It could be more than just a mental and karmic cleansing, as well… Dojo Rat recently linked to scientific research that demonstrates a link between meditative practice and an observable genetic change in the the practitioner. This actually comes as no surprise, I must say – in fact, it supports what I’ve been trying to say about yi, qi and the body in recent discussions…

Flashback to enlightenment


In the west of Cardiff (the capital city of Wales), not far from the road to Penarth, there’s a garage. I think I only ever went there once, probably in 2002, because my car needed new tires, it was a Sunday, and they were one of the few places open. Across the road, there is an old municipal pumping house that’s now become an antiques centre, crammed with all kinds of things. I went there for a couple of hours to poke about while the garage sorted my car out. It was an autumn day, I seem to recall, overcast, windy, rather chilly. I don’t think I’ve given that afternoon a single thought since.

Until yesterday. I was in my yiquan class, and we were practising fuan shili, which begins at 4min 12s in this clip:

The problem for me here is balance. If your weight isn’t properly sunk, you’ll tend to overbalance as you go forward in this move. To properly sink your weight, you have to be relaxed, so that your muscles don’t hold your weight further up. Furthermore, if your force is going to be properly transmitted out to your palms… you have to be relaxed; otherwise, stiff muscles will block the flow of power, and you’ll end up hurting yourself as your own force smacks into the area around the blockage.

So there I was in class, sending my attention to areas of pain; the pain coming from muscles that were either trying to hold my body weight when they shouldn’t (lower back; along the upper part of the spine on the right; stiff left pectoral preventing left shoulder from properly opening up, so causing pain on upper left back), or because they were acting as “energy dams”, blocking the flow of force. As my mind went to each one, seeking the muscle and trying to relax it, I got transported back to that gloomy autumn day in Cardiff.

This actually happens a lot in yiquan class. Very often, for some reason, I get flashbacks to the filling station in Llanrhystud; I suspect there’s a lot of subconscious emotional attachment to that because it was a sign that I was getting out of Aberystwyth and heading somewhere fun. The Cardiff garage, I suspect, flashed up because I was getting the car ready for sale, because I was about to leave Wales for Singapore (not that I realized then that I would be gone for seven years and counting…).

I’m pretty certain that I never got this kind of random flashback when I lived in Wales. It began when I was about to go to China for the first time, in early 2004. I was learning the xuanxuan taiji broadsword form at Nam Wah Pai. Because the scheduled course didn’t finish until a month or so after I was due to leave Singapore, I was going to the school four nights a week, training three hours per night, in order to learn the form before I left. In the last few weeks, I started getting a lot of flashbacks to moments of intense emotion from my life. I was really getting worried by this. Luckily, I didn’t go straight to Beijing; I’d booked myself in to a 10-day Vipassana retreat in Thailand, my first encounter with meditation. There I learned that this kind of flashback is entirely normal in meditation, and is a good thing, as long as you’re prepared for it. In the Theravada school of Buddhism, this is seen as a sign that you are clearing out the seeds of future karma, weakening their ability to shape future lives – and, when they are all finally, once and for all, gone, and all your attachments to past actions are broken… Well, congratulations, you’re off the wheel of rebirth!

It’s therefore only to be expected that yiquan and taiji can be vehicles for meditation. In Vipassana, the meditator focusses first on the breath, and also the muscle pain caused by prolonged sitting, to clear the mind, and to practice letting thoughts, emotions, and sensations pass by without comment or attachment. Similarly, training in neija requires a focus on the muscles in order to become soft, and that kind of transient focus on muscles, moving the mind around the body without thought or attachment, achieves much the same effect.

Hehehe, quite a pleasing little flash of insight… A recent email exchange got me thinking about this. Yiquan doesn’t talk about qi at all, where taijiquan does (and especially the taijigong taught by Sim Pern Yiau of the Nam Wah Pai Association in Singapore). And yet, the need for softness is the same in both, and the way I was describing the search for softness in my yiquan practice sounds to me very similar to the way we think about freeing the flow of qi in taijiquan (and, curiously, what I’ve read about breath in systema, but that’s a topic that I don’t want to open!). There have certainly been times when I’ve been standing in zhan zhuang in class, and felt heat as my lower dantian opened.

Anyhow, I said when I first went to try out yiquan in 2008 that I was interested in giving it a go because it seemed to have the potential for combing martial and meditative effectiveness, and that really does seem to be the case.