Blog Archives

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.