Saturday, August 29, 2015

Internal Alchemy, Part Three

I ended my last post on this subject by suggesting that Neidan, or Internal Alchemy, is kungfu, but aimed at a specific end. Obviously, learning taijiquan is about health and self-defense. Other kungfus, like learning how to echo locate if you are blind, or, shoot very efficiently if you are a fighter pilot, have obvious utility too. But how could learning how to see the world in terms of parallel lines, or being able to lucidly dream, or any of the other things I babbled on about be worth doing?


In and of themselves, the value of some of these exercises is somewhat limited. Seeing parallel lines in buildings and complex wave patterns in a streams is not going to make a huge difference in most people's lives. It is the case, however, that seeing parallel lines is the basis of understanding modern perspective drawing---which is very important to artists. (In The Story of the Stone, which is a classic 18th century Chinese novel, one of the characters bumps into a Western-style painting which has been imported from Russia. At first she thinks she is seeing a real human being, then realizes what it is and is totally gobsmacked by the power of this technique.) Wave patterns are also very important in physics.

What I find interesting about these exercises is the way it teaches a person that they can actively control the way that they perceive the world around them. We don't experience a "given", but rather a mediated experience which we can change if not totally at will, at least through sustained effort. This idea is a tremendous change from the naive realism that most people accept without thought.

Equally important, other exercises can be used to develop a discipline aimed at creating a specific type of personality. Once we learn how our minds work through dissecting our minds with our minds, then we can start sculpting them to act in specific ways---just like we do with our bodies through taijiquan. For example, I have found that the best way I can stop my mind from becoming "scattered" is through a regular process of writing. So every day I try to spend at least an hour writing. (I also try to do taijiquan every day to stop my body from deteriorating.)


Because they are all based upon introspection, which is inherently subjective, these sorts of interests are by definition not of any interest to scientists or academics. This is because there are no physical phenomena to identify and quantify. Not only this, but the related experiences are not experienced by the general public, which means that a researcher cannot even do randomized survey tests and quantify self-reported experiences in order to make generalizations from the greater human population.

Charles Tart
In fact, the problem of how to make this sort of thing of interest to scientists became the subject of a Master's thesis I attempted to write while at grad school. I was interested in expanding on the theories of the para-psychologist Charles Tart, who briefly described what he called "state-specific science". This was the idea that the scientific community could "set aside" the need for "objectivity" and instead look for patterns and laws governing the self-described experiences of people who were doing things like entering altered states of consciousness.

Unfortunately, in the process of researching this subject I came to the conclusion that unless someone else has actually done some of the things that I mentioned in the previous blog posts, they will not have the slightest idea what I am talking about. And if they have no personal experience, then the odds are very great that they will be indifferent to, if not in contempt of the ideas being discussed. This isn't to say that the professors I was working with were prejudiced against me, but rather that they were incapable of helping me with my thesis. I eventually pulled the plug on that subject and did an undefended thesis on the role of cultural conditioning in religious experience.

Science is a collective effort and proceeds through the creation of a consensus. This may contradict the Hollywood notion of the lone researcher pursuing his studies in an isolated castle or garage, but the fact of the matter is that if you cannot get colleagues to understand what you are talking about, your articles will not get published, which makes them fundamentally worthless.

Thus ended my decade long foray into the world of academic philosophy.


Of course, I really didn't do any of this stuff in order to become a university professor. What I was looking for was something called "enlightenment" or "wisdom". Many people would consider this something that you pursue through religion. I had had some vague idea that you could also get it through philosophy, but through my university studies I realized that the professors not only didn't share my interest, they were totally indifferent to the idea of pursuing "wisdom".

I had this insight reinforced years after the fact when I attended the wake of someone who had actually been a reader on my failed attempt at a formal thesis.

I won't mention his name, but he was really a "golden boy" in academic philosophy. He published many books, gained tenure at a very early age, and, was an exceptional lecturer. He was funny and engaging as a lecturer. But he was in many ways an appallingly weird, neurotic, little man. He had this awful mental "tic" of being unwilling to talk about anything that was remotely serious on a personal level without instantly making some sort of witty joke to shut down the conversation. He was also infuriatingly rude to working class women. (I used to have lunch with him in local diners once in a while. I started avoiding him because of his disgustingly sexist remarks to waitresses.)

At his wake I was struck by the fact that all his colleagues, who spoke of him with genuine affection, kept talking about what a great "scholar" he was. It became very clear to me that what these professors were "about" had absolutely nothing at all to do with the search for wisdom, truth, and, insight. Instead, it really was about doing good research, publishing solid papers, and so on. I think that there is a difference.

Wisdom is partially based on knowledge, but it is also based on insight---which is at heart a creative thing. Insight is about knowing to do the right thing at the right time. This leads to a second point, in that wisdom isn't just about learning something new, it is more importantly about changing who you are. It is about developing holistically as an ethical, artistic, and, emotional being. Wise people need not be geniuses---but they are not insensitive goofs.


When it became obvious that academic philosophy was not for me, I became interested in religion. Most religions have a body of individuals known as "mystics"---people who seem to be interested in the same mental practices that I was. If it is impossible to study subjective mental states through science and philosophy, then perhaps the way to go would be to join a religious order. The problem with that, however, is that these groups are enmeshed in religions.


I was raised in a pretty non-religious home. My family were nominally Baptists. That meant that us children got sent to Sunday school---but I suspect that that was more about the parents having a few hours to themselves rather than anything else. The one time I can remember that the minister came to visit, my dad crawled out the window of his study and hid in the barn until he'd left. My mother tells me that from a very early age I would argue with Sunday school teachers about the Bible. Supposedly, I insisted that many things in it made absolutely no sense and couldn't possibly be true. I don't think mom or dad considered this terrible behaviour, though, and at a relatively early age I didn't have to go to church any more.

As a result, when I became interested in religious experiences and mystical practices, I did so without any understanding of what actually happens within religious institutions.


The Christianity of Liberals
I spent a lot of time reading the scholarship of Christianity. This included people like Karen Armstrong, Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan, and so on. I was totally fascinated by their vision, which was based on the Sermon on the Mount. These are the ideals of pacifism, radical concern for the poor, etc, that tend to see Jesus as a "commie hippie". Intellectually, I think that a very strong case can be made to say that this actually is the message of the New Testament. But the problem is that the church isn't really a product of the Gospels. Instead, it was created by historical and political processes and actualized in the traditions and institutions of the existing church. Perhaps if I hadn't been so naive, I would have "twigged" onto the fact that many of these liberal theologians and scholars, like Armstrong and Crossan, had tried to be members of religious orders but had had such a terrible time that they left. Indeed, most of these people have only the most tenuous connection with the institutional church. In years past I have no doubt that most of them would have been burnt at the stake as heretics. Even though their books are best sellers and they routinely fill huge halls on their speaking tours---they are at best marginal figures and totally unrepresentative of real "Christianity".

Counter-balanced against liberal Christians of the sort I was attracted to are a much stronger and better organized group of Christian Fundamentalists that Chris Hedges has described in his book American Fascists and which he describes in this CBC interview:

And below out-and-out Fascists, there is a much larger group of Christians who's understanding comes down to not much more than a belief in whatever conservative viewpoint they grew up with and a bullying attitude towards anyone that sees things differently. A short clip from "Family Guy" encapsulates this sort of person quite well. I certainly have met lots of "Jesus people" who are just the same.


This isn't just a Christian phenomenon, or even limited to the Abrahamic religions.

Chogyam Trungpa
Richard Baker
There have been a fair number of "exposes" published recently about problems within Buddhist groups. Many of them focus on the sexual escapades of Buddhist teachers, some of the most flagrant examples have been Chogyam Trungpa  and Richard Baker, both of which used their positions as "gurus" to live excessive lifestyles and sexually exploit their students. There have also been other stories about problems in other Buddhist organizations. It seems that there are just as many problems in institutional Buddhism as in Christianity.

Unfortunately, there is also a much much bigger worm in the apple of Zen Buddhism that needs to be addressed. The Soto Zen priest and academic historian, Brian Victoria, has published two books---Zen at War, and, Zen War Stories---detailing complicity between Japanese Zen and the Imperial Japanese Empire. This is very tough stuff to read. The organizations that governed Japanese Zen tried to take over and control the local Zen institutions in China and Korea. They also created a theology called "Imperial Way Zen" that justified the Imperial Japanese Empire so Buddhists could feel happy fighting for the Emperor. At no point did "enlightened Zen Masters" attempt to oppose the vicious, colonial oppression, brutal wars of aggression, or, Orwellian state. So much for the teachings of the Compassionate Buddha!

Zen at War
Zen War Stories
 The really disconcerting thing about these revelations comes down to two points. As most people understand Buddhism, the key goal is "enlightenment". At some time in the ancient past, a specific person, "the Buddha", pursued a specific spiritual process and became "enlightened". This was such a good experience that it changed him profoundly. Moreover, it is something that everyone can, at least potentially, also replicate in their own lives. Indeed, in some traditions---such as the Tibetan and Zen, which Trungpa and Baker come from---teachers are given specific "credentials" as having become enlightened, just like the historical Buddha. This gives them tremendous legitimacy and authority in the eyes of their followers. It is this authority that allows leaders like Trungpa and Baker the ability to so abuse their followers.

This is a significant difference between Buddhism and Roman Catholicism. It might be that for many people the pope, the local priest and everyone in between has enormous authority that they can use to abuse parishioners. But the fact of the matter is that there is absolutely nothing in Catholic theology, law, or, tradition that says that they cannot abuse their authority. Medieval painters and poets---like Dante---routinely filled Hell with Popes, Bishops, and, priests. In contrast, Buddhism creates transmission charts to show that Zen and Tibetan Masters have unbroken connections to ancient masters. They are supposed to literally be "supermen". If so, how can a "superman" be a boob that can't keep his hands off his female followers, has a thing for expensive cars, and, is willing to support a bloodthirsty Fascist regime?

The second thing that I found really unnerving about this controversy was the response from the Buddhist community in North America. Some teachers did think that this was a big deal, but far, far too many just dismissed Victoria's books as a question of "cultural relativism".  Even recognized masters seemed incapable of understanding the profound question that these revelations raise about the nature of both "enlightenment" and "lineage transmission". What value is there in "enlightenment" if it can't help you make proper ethical decisions or even understand the question in the first place?


Once I started finding out about the problems with Buddhist clergy, I started asking myself what the actual goal of Buddhist meditation could be. It seems to have nothing to do with ethical insight, as it seems that even people with real progress in Zen could end up being ethical morons. At this point I started to really question a lot of assumptions that I had had about the nature of religion and religious experience. In my next post on Neidan, I'll share some of my conclusions.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Mencius: the Economy and Legal System

I'm still working my way through Mencius in my own haphazard way and the following paragraph jumped off the page at me.

With a constant livelihood, people's minds are constant. Without a constant livelihood, people's minds are never constant. And without constant minds, they wander loose and wild. They stop at nothing, and soon cross the law. Then, if you punish them accordingly, you've done nothing but snare the people in your own trap. And if they're Humane, how can those in high position snare their people in traps?
(Duke Wen of T'Eng, Book One, part 3. David Hinton translation.) 

There's a whole universe of ideas in that paragraph. It contains a psychological theory. It implies an complex understanding of the relationship between economics and the criminal justice system. It also warns of the dangers of a punitive legal system. And, it implies something about the responsibilities of rulers. All these problems plague today's society. Which is why we can all benefit from the insights that Mencius brings to bear on them.

First of all, "With a constant livelihood, people's minds are constant". This is a statement that says that people are not totally isolated individuals who bounce around like balls on some great snooker table. Instead, who they are is modified and changed by the economic and social conditions that they find themselves in. This point of view is radically at odds with the theories that underlay both our economic and legal systems.

In economics, people are assumed to be totally "rational" in that they are able to clearly identify what particular economic choice is in their best interest and which is not. This "rationality"---or so the theory goes---allows people to compete efficiently in a free market. This assumption underlies several lies that people tell themselves in order to perform specific functions. For example, I once heard a talk by some advertising executives about marketing. When I suggested that they were serving a public disservice by artificially ramping-up artificial demand, they blandly asserted that all advertising ever does is allow people to choose between brands. They said that it never has anything at all to do with encouraging people to buy things that they don't need.  (Were they lying because it was in their rational interest? Or had their jobs created/selected for a specific type of delusion?)

Our legal system similarly assumes that all people are totally equal moral entities that can choose at any given moment the "right thing to do" totally independently of their life experiences and the individual subculture that they currently inhabit. The very fact that people do spend a lot of time trying to parse out the subtleties of ethical reasoning (like this blog post) would suggest that this isn't true. But as near as I can tell, the people who run the criminal justice system live in a totally different world from people like me, so they never have to smack themselves up against that awful cognitive dissonance that results from seeing evidence that contradicts your assumptions.


I came across an example of the interface between the economic and legal system in a podcast by KMO last week. He was talking about his experience as a low-level employee at when it was just a start-up. He was talking about the weird street life of Seattle, where up-and-coming tech types would rub shoulders with destitute street people from both the black and American Indian subcultures. He used to often sit in a cafe with big windows and watch the "War on Drugs" play out in front of him. He said that people would come to buy drugs from street people. He identified three groups of individuals: the police, the dealers, and the customers. The customers and police stayed the same, but the dealers kept changing as they were arrested and dumped into the prison-industrial complex. In effect, they were desperate, disposable people. (I can't put a link into KMO's podcast because it is behind a paywall---we all got to eat---but if you can, I would encourage everyone to buy a subscription.)

There was demand for the drugs, because people are "hard wired" to want to get high. And because the drugs were illegal, they were sold for artificially inflated prices. This meant that a criminal distribution network was created to sell them. And because police officers build their career by creating idiotic statistics about how many bodies they put in jail, there was a demand to arrest disposable people. And because there was very high unemployment rate in Seattle, there was a large pool of desperate people who would do anything in order to make some money. And, this whole war was focused on urban neighbourhoods because these unemployed, underclass people didn't have the connections to be able to raise a fuss for the way that they were being treated.


So, as Mencius would say, take away people's constant livelihood, and they will "wander loose and wild". This is exactly another point that KMO made. The street people in Seattle were totally acclimatized to their life in "the wild". They were feral people who lived totally in the moment and had given up any pretense at civilized notions like privacy, cleanliness, decorum, etc. (Look in the downtown of any modern city and you will understand what I am talking about.) And, if you live like that and are desperate for money, if someone comes along and offers you "easy money" to sell street drugs. What are you going to do? Especially if getting busted just results in going to a prison, which is not all that much different from living on the street except that it has better creature comforts? 

As Mencius would say, the legal system punishes people by snaring them in their own trap. 


But here Mencius does something that is totally alien to modern sensibilities. He says "-- if they're Humane, how can those in high position snare their people in traps?" This is because he is a Confucian, not a Legalist. Legalists try to create a perfect system where the "human element" has been totally removed. Mandatory minimum sentences, for example, are a Legalist tactic, because it lessens the ability of a judge to show compassion and adapt a ruling to fit the reality of the criminal's life.  A certain degree of Legalism is perhaps necessary for a modern, industrial society because as people learn to live in huge cities and giant nation states people have to be able to depend on standardized ways of relating to one another. In a village, people could adapt to each other's personal quirks, but most modern people interact with thousands and thousands of strangers in their daily life. If there wasn't a very standardized set of behaviours, negotiating these interactions would eat up much more time and energy than available to anyone.  But IMHO, our society has gone way past the point where Legalism becomes oppressive instead of merely practical.

Many people simply cannot follow our world's extensive and constantly growing list of standardized behaviours. My wife, for example, has a psychiatric illness that means that for randomly selected six week periods of time, she descends into psychotic episodes. This means that no matter how much she might want to, she can never be a "dependable employee". It also means that anything from a doctor's appointment to a meeting with a judge is always provisional. Everything comes down to "I will attend, if I can". This lack of predictability not only means that she is pretty much unemployable, it also fosters a state of mind that is often hard for people to understand. 

If you do not know what tomorrow will bring----and have fate force you to really know that it in your bones through a thing like a psychotic episode---then you will have to develop an attitude that Christ described.  
"And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don't work or make their clothing."            
 Matthew 6:28, New Living Translation

This is the attitude of street people, and it isn't something that they "just choose", it is a point of view that has been forced upon them by grim necessity. Yet it is totally "out of sync" with with the way middle class people have to live. (Indeed, KMO said that the street people and up-and-comers passed each other in the street totally oblivious to each other. He said it was as if they were "out of phase" with each other---like in some sort of Star Trek episode.) It is hard enough to live "out of phase" with mainstream society, but I suspect that it also sometimes positively enrages middle class people who find this attitude not only incomprehensible, but also mulish and willful.

The movie Monster pretty much encapsulates this clash between the psychology of "lilies" and middle class respectability very well. The lawyer idiotically assumes that the woman in front of him is someone

who has had the same opportunities in life that he has had. He perhaps had to work hard to get a job as a lawyer. Aileen (the character based on the real life of a serial killer named Aileen Wuornos) had a childhood so brutal and horrible that I doubt if most people could even believe it possible.  At a young age, she drifted into prostitution because it was the only way she could survive. As a result, she simply doesn't have a clue about how most people go about getting a job or work at one.  While being attacked by a John, she killed him in self-defense, which horrified her. This job interview is a desperate attempt to find herself some way out of this horrible life.

This scene really struck home to me when I first saw the movie (isn't YouTube wonderful for making a point like this?), as I grew up on a subsistence farm with a dysfunctional family (nothing as bad as Wuornos) and had an awful time trying to find work as a young man. I literally didn't have a clue about how most people make a living or go about finding a job. I had interviews that were as uncomfortable and embarrassing as the one in the movie. Fortunately, I had enough control to avoid the nasty blow-up at the end, but inside I ended up seething with rage both at the unfairness of the world around me and my utter and complete worthlessness as a human being. This is what it is like to be a member of the class of "disposable people" when it interacts with mainstream society. This is part of the "trap" that Mencius is saying non-Humane rulers create for their people. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Internal Alchemy, Part Two

In a previous post I mentioned some of the ways in which practicing taijiquan can be a form of Neidan, or internal alchemy. This post will try to talk about a few methods that I practice outside of martial arts.


I forget the title and haven't been able to find the book, but years ago I read, in translation, a Buddhist sutra that listed all the different ways in which one can meditate in order to gain enlightenment. The list was enormous. Most people I meet don't understand this, and think that the only way to meditate is through some sort of formal sitting practice. Probably this is simply because formal sitting is the most practical way of engaging most people who express an interest in the subject. I also suspect that formal group sitting is the best way of coordinating a large group of nuns or monks in a monastic setting. Eventually, as a transmission declines and ossifies, people forget about the broader range of options and what started out as specialization becomes exclusivity.

Someone like myself, who has only for brief periods of time (and only marginally then) been a member of a community, has the luxury of experimentation and the stern discipline of having to be my own taskmaster. This means that I have spent a lot of time exploring other options beside formal sitting.


To cite a specific example, one of the practices my first meditation teacher taught me was to spend time thinking about my perception and re-ordering it according to specific principles. One example is to walk around and try to be aware of all the parallel lines that exist in the world around us. Certainly in the human-build world they are everywhere. In nature, not so much. Another practice I sometimes do is to look at water flowing over stones and try to be aware of all the complex wave patterns that manifest themselves as the water interacts with stones. Another thing I used to do was sit in a forest and without moving my head move "my hearing attention" around me like a search light. It is possible to do, but it requires a special type of sensitivity and concentration.

What I was doing wasn't echo location, like this young man is doing. But I suspect that if many people put enough effort into it, they would be able to manifest something like the same ability. 


The Neijing Tu (but not mine)
On the wall of my study I have a copy of a famous diagram that is found in the White Cloud Temple called the "Neijing Tu". It is a stylized representation of the human body. One of the things I noticed about the specific version I have is that what I can only surmise are the "eyes" of the figure are represented by what seem to be a sun and a crescent moon. This got me thinking about the experience of seeing with two eyes. Was one of my eyes more dominant than another? And is the way we experience the world different with one eye versus another. Following the iconography of Daoism, could this picture be telling me that the right eye is the "yang" (sun) eye and the left one the "yin" (moon)?

(Interestingly enough, when I went into Google Images to find a copy, I noticed that most of the versions do not have this different between the two eyes.)

This was especially of interest to me for two reasons.

First of all, there is a very strong tradition in Western popular culture that there is such a thing as an "evil eye". I don't really take the popular understanding very seriously, but I have met the odd person who for some reason has scared the absolute bejesus out of me because of something in the way their eyes look.

Much more importantly, I was fascinated by scientific research that has been done using people who have had their brains surgically separated as a way of treating a very horrible form of epilepsy. In effect, it creates symptoms that look like there are two different people living in the same body.

What this suggested to me was that if I very carefully analyzed my experience of seeing, I might be able to find something like a subtle dominance of one eye over another. If so, then it might be of value to teach myself to control which eye is dominant at any given moment. This is based on the idea that different sides of the brain are linked to different eyes, and that each side of the brain has subtle differences from the other. In the YouTube video, this is expressed by one side being able to verbalize what the eye associated with it is seeing, whereas the other eye can only express itself through drawing pictures. It is true that people who have not had their brains separated still have linkages between the two sides, but it struck me that there still might be subtle issues that come from which particular eye is dominant. 

As a result of this thinking, I put a fair amount of time into trying ascertain which eye was dominant and then tried to train myself to be able to pick and choose which one I wanted to dominate at any given moment. 


I came across another idea in a book I read titled The Art of Memory by Francis Yates. This fascinating little book describes an ancient discipline for greatly expanding the human memory that has existed from ancient Greek times, through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. As I remember, it involves association techniques that allow one to "encode" one idea into another that is more vivid. For example, if you wanted to remember the telephone number 822-1024 (this was the phone number of my first taijiquan teacher), you could say to yourself "Eight bullets and ten cases of beer".  This is because one of the standard bullet sizes is 22 calibre and beer comes in cases of 24. The point is that the images have to ones that will come readily to the person who is trying to remember. 

In the case of much more involved memory projects, Yates said that ancients would spend time in a space, like a temple, so they could totally memorize each part of it. And when they had to memorize something like a speech, they would visualize themselves walking through the building where different elements of the speech would be identified through articles "left" in it with their mind's eye. So if someone wanted to first talk about the sea, they might visualize an oar on the front steps, then if they wanted to move on to agriculture, they would create a mental picture of a sheaf of grain in the doorway. If the military was the next stage, then they'd show a spear leaning against the first statue past the entrance.  

I don't know if my interest in the art of memory was caused by Yates' book, but I found it fascinating. One thing I do remember is that when at university I never took notes during a lecture. I would try to come prepared, sit on the front row, and give the professor my absolute, undivided attention. My experience was that I missed so much of what she had to say by trying to write stuff down that I retained far less than if I simply listened to what she had to say.  


Another thing I worked on for a while involved teaching myself to be able to have lucid dreams. These are dreams where one is consciously aware that one is dreaming and is able to exert influence over the content of your dream. You do this by planting an image in your mind before you drift off to sleep and concentrate on gaining self-awareness when it presents itself in the dream. In my case---taking a cue from Carlos Castenada---I told myself that I would become aware when I saw my hands in my dream. The first time I did this I became aware in a dream where I was driving in a convertible car down a city street. At that point I told myself "I'm in a dream. I can do anything. I want this car to fly." I pulled back on the steering wheel like in an airplane and took off into the sky. 

What this experience taught me that it is possible to even practice internal alchemy while you are sleeping. And I did go through a brief phase where I was practicing taijiquan while sleeping. (I even got correction from the head instructor from my Temple!) 


Wayne Gretzky:  Neidan Master?
I could go on and on about this sort of thing for quite a while more. But hopefully I've made my point that there are a lot of different ways in which one can play around with the way our minds operate. On reflection, this shouldn't be a huge surprise. A lot of people do this every day in much more prosaic contexts. Think about the famous saying attributed to Wayne Gretzky:  "A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be". He is saying that in his training to be a hockey player, he was able to observe a new way of viewing the world and integrate it into the way he played.

"Buzz Beurling", Neidan Master?
Another example of this sort of thing was the WW2 flying ace "Buzz" Beurling. I read a book about him once and a fellow officer described spending an afternoon with him while posted on Malta. Beurling was using a pistol to shoot lizards. In the process, he was experimenting with a way of sighting the pistol to take into account deflection and drop angles for the bullet. (This is much the same thing as Gretzky's idea of "going where the puck is going to be instead of where it is".) The other officer said that he started using the system that Beurling explained to him and found that it dramatically increased his accuracy. This system was not only useful with a pistol, however, but could also be applied to shooting with a Spitfire against Italian and German airplanes. (Don't ask me what it was, because it wasn't explained in the biography.) Again, this is an example of someone learning an interesting facet of how his mind operated in order to become more efficient at a specific task.


Of course, this discussion is ultimately based on the idea of "kung fu", or, the application of hard work over a long period of time to develop an exceptional degree of ability. I am suggesting that "neidan" or "internal alchemy" is a type of kung fu. I am not suggesting that learning how to play hockey or shoot are forms of "neidan", but they are types of kung fu. Neidan is kung fu aimed towards a specific end. What that end can and should be, will be the subject of a future post.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Secret Teachings

The reason why culture creates myths and stories is to ensure that there is a common store of images and ideas amongst people so they can more easily communicate complex ideas. These images are called "tropes". One of the more common tropes in spiritual literature in general and Daoist literature in particular is that of the "secret teaching" imparted on a particular student in a large school.

I just came across one while re-reading the introduction to Journey to the West. The stone monkey seeks out a realized man to train him on the path to immortality and ends up joining a school. During one of the lectures, the teacher makes a hand gesture that only monkey understands is a secret message to meet him late at night at a specific place. He is the only student to realize this and gets a "secret teaching" that leads to him gaining all sorts of special powers.

Does this sort of thing actually happen? Well, yes and no. Let me illustrate with two examples from my life.


Years ago I was a student at university. I had met a fellow who was a bit of a loner and I think I was one of the few folks who would socialize with him. One of the residence advisers asked me if I thought this guy was dangerous. It turned out that the campus police had come to him asking about his state of mind. He'd been out at the pub with some other students and had said that he had a gun and was going to get up on one of the towers and start shooting students. The adviser knew that I had had some dealings with this guy, so he asked me about him. I said "No, I can't see him doing something like that."

After the fact, I felt a little guilty about being so glib, so I asked the student out to the pub and had a long talk with him. Oh dear. What a story he had to tell me about his life. His parents had abandoned him and his sister when he was quite young. His sister had raised him by working as a prostitute in a body rub parlour. His first job leaving school was working as a "repo man", taking back people's televisions who had bought them on time. You get the picture. This was a fellow who had chewed on the gristle of life from a very early age. I had had my own tough childhood, too. Perhaps that was why we gravitated together, but this guy lived in a bleak, bleak world.

He got up and left the table, leaving me feeling really empty. Immediately, a fellow sat down next to me. The waitress walked by and he asked me what I drank. He said "two blues for me, and two OVs for my friend". And that is how I met my first meditation teacher. This was the guy who taught me a simple technique that opened up my spine chakras with the result of a very, very forceful experience of an awakened kundalini.

Corny as it may seem, this is a good representation of what it feels like to have your chakras open up.  


Years later, I was a member of a taijiquan school and was attending a teacher's workshop on pushing hands.  The big teacher was trying to teach a bunch of middle-class kids how to practice something that is supposed to teach sensitivity and two-person practice in a martial art---without killing each other. Since we were a bunch of undisciplined, self-righteous jerks with delusions of being "above" stuff like martial arts, none of us were taking it really seriously. One of the things he told us to do was stop talking while we were doing it.

Push hands

Why we do push hands

A strange thing happened. I stopped talking and refused to start again. I noticed that no one else did that. Everyone else just started yakking again after a short pause. Oh well, that's the way things are. But I noticed after the fact that the teacher noticed that I had actually done what he told me to do when no one else did. It had a real effect on him. Someone had complained about me and he absolutely tore a strip off her and implied that as far as he was concerned, I was his fair-haired boy. Shortly thereafter, he asked me join the Temple.


Years ago, when I was still looking for a school to enter or teacher to follow, I found out that a Zen priest worked as a technician in the building next where I worked as a guard. (Universities are filled with very interesting people working in a support role. I also met a technician who is an extremely high-ranked Iado teacher and another who was a big name Akido teacher.)

We had an interesting chat. He basically tried to talk me out of being interested in Zen. I asked him why he had gotten involved and he told me that he had been a private in the army who had gotten shipped off to Korea during the war there. He had had a terrible experience and had ended up staying there at a Korean Zen facility in an attempt to make sense of it all. (There must have been a lot more that he wasn't telling me. He was a white guy from Canada who didn't seem to have any background in Asian stuff, dumped into a very brutal war, who ended up staying in a very alien culture in a totally devastated country.) He said that in his opinion, a nasty life experience is the "entry ticket" to the spiritual path.


There is a saying that says "it is harder to find a good student than it is to find a good teacher". I think that this is the basis of the trope of "hidden teachings". I think the vast majority of people who have something useful to share with their fellow men and women would gladly do so any chance they have. But the problem is that there is no sense trying to do so if the person in front of you is incapable of understanding what you have to say. I'm not saying something to the effect that it could be dangerous, or that they would pervert the teaching, I'm suggesting that it would be totally incomprehensible and impossible to put into practice.

I think that when that meditation teacher started me on my path, it might have been because he saw me try to really engage with someone else who had had a very hard life. And when my taiji teacher initiated me into the Temple, he saw someone who had at least the minimal amount of self-awareness necessary to stop talking when asked. Probably, the only reason why I could do these two things was because I had had a similarly tough childhood that allowed me to feel sympathy for someone else who was dealing with big demons. And the fact that I had spent many, many hours by myself thinking about what it means to be a human being---while driving tractor or hoeing vegetables---allowed me to recognize the "monkey" in my head that wants to chatter incessantly. These were my own two "entry tickets" that allowed me to see the "secret hand signals" that life has offered me.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Internal Alchemy, or, Neidan---Qigong?

When I was learning taijiquan I was taught a lot of exercises called "Zhong". (I'm just spelling phonetically, don't ask me how it is really spelled. And don't forget that there are different dialects in China, which means that the same thing can have a very different sounding name---depending on what dialect your teacher uses.) The teacher sometimes referred to the exercises as being "marrow washing" and "tendon changing", which are phrases that are commonly used in Daoist parlance. I've never seen anything that is exactly the same in a YouTube video, but I do sometimes see resonances. I once asked a fellow who knows a lot more about this stuff than I do, and he said that Mr. Moy (the head of the school) was a real expert on Shaolin tendon changing exercises---whatever that means. The best way to explain them is to suggest that they have some sort of resemblance to what people describe as "qigong".

I also remember reading an article in a Kungfu mag that said that the term "qigong" was actually invented in the early 20th century by the republican government of China. It wanted to promote the health benefits of exercise while at the same time removing the spiritual dimension associated with "neidan" or "internal alchemy".  Being an ordained Daoist, perhaps my teacher felt no obligation to use the newfangled term. Perhaps what he was teaching had absolutely nothing at all to do with qigong. Who knows?  I certainly don't. But it does raise an issue that I do have something to say about, which is in answer to the question "What exactly is "internal alchemy" anyway?"


Discussing whether or not exercises taught in a taijiquan school are "qigong" or "internal alchemy" is somewhat disingenuous because most people see the taijiquan set in and of itself as an exercise in neidan. The story is that the Daoist immortal Zhang Sanfeng took the martial arts system known as taijiquan (many people say that he invented it, but the lineage to Chen family village seems to be fairly well established, so I refuse to promote that bit of "wild history") and made it into a spiritual practice for self-transformation (ie "neidan".)

Zhang Sanfeng
Supposedly he lived as a Daoist hermit of sorts in either what Westerners call the late middle ages or early renaissance.  I emphasize the date, because some people have the tendency to think of Daoism as something enshrouded in the mists of antiquity.  In actual fact, it is not really any older than Buddhism or Christianity---and some folks think it is newer than both. This is part of the "ancient Chinese wisdom" trope, and, it is also a way of "smacking down" anyone who wants to think for themselves and do that most horrible of things: "innovate".

So how is taijiquan internal alchemy? Isn't it a martial art?

Well, yes and no, to both.


In medieval philosophy there is a little Latin word that gets used a lot:  "qua". In fact, many years ago, when I was still a student, I hired someone to type up an essay I had written. She called me on the phone and asked me if "qua" was a real word, because I'd used it so often in the paper. What it refers to is a specific aspect of something in a particular context. In the case of taijiquan, we need to understand that what on the outside seems to be the same practice can be understood as being different. Taijiquan can be a martial art or a spiritual practice.

Taiji qua martial art is about punching and kicking, grappling and repelling. It is about beating the crap out of other people and preventing them from doing the same to you. Taiji qua spiritual practice is about exploring what it means to be a human being and using the knowledge gained to become a better person. The complexity is that the spiritual practice element cannot be totally separated from the martial arts. Someone who has gained real spiritual insight cannot help but become a better fighter.

I remember reading a story about a famous 19th century Japanese swordsman. He was in charge of the guards who protected the Emperor and as part of his duties, he had to select and train new recruits for the position. In one group of new students he took two of them aside and said to them "I can see that the two of you have attained real mastery of some sort. Please explain." One of them said "When we set out on this path we decided that the only way to become great warriors would be to totally remove any fear of death. We worked hard on this practice and eventually purged ourselves."

Doing away with a fear of death is of tremendous importance in a fight. This because for most warriors the prime directive is to "save yourself and kill the enemy". If you do not care about whether you live or die, it becomes a lot easier to kill. Paradoxically, if you do not fear death, you will often have an advantage that will allow you to live---because the enemy will see this in your eyes. At that point his prime directive often becomes shortened to just "save yourself".  When "save yourself" meets "kill your enemy", the former will invariably run!


Spiritual practice is a lot more involved than just overcoming a fear of death---although that is part of it. It is also about becoming aware of subtleties that are totally invisible to most folks. And if you are serious about taijiquan, there are a lot of doors that get opened for you that are invisible to others. Take, for example, bodily awareness.

By the age of adulthood, the vast majority of people have lost an enormous amount of flexibility in both their lower backs and their chests. Years ago, when I got a job in the maintenance shop of a university I was given a quick talk by someone in management about how to lift a heavy object. He emphasized using my legs instead of my back. This is very good advice. But what he didn't say--- because almost no one understands this fact---is that the reason why most people lift with their backs instead of their legs is because they have lost the ability to flex and control their tail bone. This means that they it is almost impossible for them to use their legs to lift heavy objects. This means, among other things, that people use their backs instead, which is why back injuries are epidemic among people who work with their hands for a living.

In my taijiquan school one of my first tasks was to practice those exercises I mentioned above.  One of the was called a "donyu" (again phonetic.) There was nothing fancy or esoteric about them. They were the things that other schools call "pole lifting exercises" or moving "horse stances" or "deep knee bends".  But the result, along with other exercises, was a tremendous strengthening of the legs, lower back, loosening up of tendons, and, a growing awareness of how to control the muscles. Eventually, an event occurred where my tailbone unfused with a loud cracking sound. I've read that it is not true that a tailbone actually fuses, so the sound might have been something else. But I can certainly see where the idea could come from that it does. I am certainly not the only person who is into taijiquan who has had that "cracking" experience.

This is something like a donyu

I have been a manual laborer all of my working life, but I have found that I can move a lot of very heavy items quite safely because of those lessons that I was given by my taijiquan teacher all those years ago. I have also tried to get coworkers to use the same techniques, but that has proved impossible for two reasons. First, they lack the control and flexibility in their lower backs. Secondly, they usually believe that moving heavy stuff is "stupid work" that doesn't require any thought at all---so they refuse to think about what they are doing. (For this reason, I often do stuff by myself because it can be dangerous to work with someone who willfully refuses to think about what they are doing.)

Once you gain the ability to use your entire lower back, then you have another thing to work on. That is, that you have to learn to control the two sides of it, left and right, independently. This is because the gluteus maximus muscle (ie your butt) is a major power source that connects very strong leg and back muscles into a giant spring. Using these muscles in conjunction are what give taiji players to store and release power when they are fighting. They also are what allow players to maintain their stability and balance by raising and lower the centre of gravity. They are also what allows the player to spiral and pivot in ways that allows them to evade an attack and deflect blows. Finally, they are also what allows a player to relax and allow blows to flow through the body into the floor instead of absorbing them and damaging the body.

One of the things I tell people who are foolish enough to ask me to teach them taijiquan is that the art involves the practice of "dissecting your body with your mind". That is, through the process of doing the set you have to constantly expand your bodily awareness so you can learn more and more about how it operates. This, in turn, gives you a greater and greater ability to get the body to do things that would have been not only impossible but also incomprehensible before the student started on the path of the Dao.


Of course, once you start paying attention to how your body works, you have to start paying attention to how your mind works too. When I started out doing the form, I realized early on that I had to do something about the "internal dialogue" that was constantly running in my mind. That is, every time I would get into the set I would start telling myself stuff like "oh that hurts", "oh I love taiji", "I hate doing this", "I'm bored", "what will I cook for lunch", "is my boss pissed off with me?", etc, etc. And when I got involved with this internal discussion---I'd lose track of where I was in the 108 moves of the set. Moreover, I would (and still do) have to constantly battle with my monkey mind about whether or not I want to exercise on any given day. That's because part of me would like nothing better than to sit in an easy chair, eat potato chips and watch television until I have a heart attack.

So, you don't just have to dissect your body with your mind, you have to dissect your mind with your mind too. And once you start doing that, you really do fall down the rabbit hole. In a future blog post I'll try to explain some other elements of my neidan practice that come outside of taijiquan.