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In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, “I have attained something.” — Shunryu Suzuki

In Taoism, there is also the idea, “to gain something, you must lose… to lose something, you must gain.” It is the way of the natural world, and indeed of all of us.

Natural disasters like we have recently seen in Colorado and in the Philippines illustrate this principle very well. People worked for decades — centuries perhaps – and it is all wiped away. Entire lifetimes are wiped away. In such extremes we see how flexible we must be, how willing to begin again with little warning. And, as life flows again, houses are rebuilt, roads rebuilt, water and electricity return. People rebuild their lives anew. And more than they realize, they return to the beginning.

During the week of the floods, I began my tai chi class. Some of you may recall that I was soaked to the skin when I arrived. As it happens, the students of that class are about to graduate. They have attained some minimal knowledge of the forms. On the evening he announced people would be graduating, my teacher idly mentioned to me almost as an afterthought, “You can always take the beginner’s class again.”

This was quite upsetting to me. Had I not practiced, learned, applied myself? My endurance, flexibility, all those things were so much better than 12 weeks earlier! I have attained something! My brain really circled and tightened around the idea that I was a failure or was lacking something. It continued circling for several days after. Peace? Well, not right then, for sure.

At roughly the same time, at the place where I work hard to bring cookies home to Chi, I was struggling to learn a new skill. I had to learn a new way of thinking about the work I had done and was about to do. It has been very difficult to retrain my brain. I was frustrated.

Last Saturday morning, I was getting my weekly massage and regaling my patient masseur with all of this. I wound up for the big finish with the tai chi instructor thinking I should stay behind and take another beginner class. I was indignant by that time, and not relaxing very much on the massage table. I beat my hand on the table and talked about failure, what was the point, was I really that bad? At one point, the massage therapist broke his silence and gently mentioned that it might not be because I was a failure. He was almost giggling by the time he pointed out that repeating the beginner sequence of movements will make them more ingrained and lead to a better practice. My brain hated that, insisting it knew enough already. I told my massage therapist that I would consider what he had said out of politeness more than conviction.

By the time I got back to tai chi class last week, I had decided I would follow my teacher’s advice. As I told him I’d stick around, the teacher looked genuinely pleased. It was only then that he conspiratorially whispered that he himself had taken the beginner’s class twice… in combination with the continuing class. You deepen your practice, he explained, and get into the continuing discipline as you go. Explained that way, it made sense. It was not a failure at all. Western mind likes to make us think if we don’t hurry through and be perfect at every endeavor, then we must be failures. This is a lie.

At the-place-where-I-earn-Chi’s-cookies, there also I got to return to the beginning, discussing ideas from the beginning and slowing down to reach true understanding.

All of this seeming setback had shown the possibility inherent in starting something new, and staying in an open, receptive, beginner’s mind throughout life.

For Chi’s part, he doesn’t have to actually catch the squirrel in the back yard. He chases it every day, trying to learn HOW to catch it. It’s not really about the outcome.

I look for places now to practice beginner’s mind. I am grateful I was allowed to see and experience it when so many rush around unseeing, consuming, accumulating, rushing. There IS another way.

Beginners-Mind-ZenRocks

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Experience is a riverbed,
Its source hidden, forever flowing:
Its entrance, the root of the world,
The Way moves within it:
Draw upon it; it will not run dry.

— Tao te Ching adaptation by Peter Merel

Chi has a thing for the neighbor over the back fence.  It may have always been so. The neighbor is a kindly old man, rather like the Sage in the stories. He spends endless hours in his yard perfecting the grass, the beautiful flowers. Each tree is cared for and pruned with exquisite attention.

This care extends to Chi. As long as I can remember, the man has called Chi to come to him; preening, mugging, cajoling, teasing. And, as long as I can remember, Chi has had nothing to do with it. Chi runs to the fence like a sentry, barking, hairs standing at attention.  The dance goes back and forth between the two.

I’ve tried to help the old man. Surely, this man would have a treat for Chi. I greet the man, tell Chi the man is a friend. I tap my foot and look annoyed. I yell at our poor pugalicious. Normally, any of these things would stop Chi in mid-bark.  Not this situation; not this neighbor; not this day.

This ritual was playing itself out for the umpteenth time last weekend when a new thought emerged. Maybe this dance, this back-and-forth, was exactly the point. Both seem to enjoy it, no matter how noisy or frustrating it might appear to outsiders. It perfectly illustrates the endless spin of yin and yang, both circling, one sharp, one gentle, The play IS the point.

And, once again, I find Chi teaching me. Humans talk on and on about living life. But those damned rules sometimes stop us from experience. Don’t bark, don’t trample the flowers, don’t be rude, don’t, don’t, don’t.

Getting to the root, the essence of life, IS life. And sometimes, it’s loud and messy.

OUTSIDE VOICES, EVERYONE!

goodluckwiththat

This morning my quarters were so cold
I suddenly thought of my friend in the mountains
gathering firewood down by the creek
lugging it back to boil white rocks
I wish I could bring him a gourd full of wine
to drive off the wind and rain at night
but fallen leaves cover the deserted slopes
and how could I find the trail

Wei Ying-wu

[Translated by Red Pine, from the book, ‘In Such Hard Times: The Poetry of Wei Ying-wu’. Copper Canyon Press]

A Scholar's Retreat amidst Autumn Trees, Ming dynasty (1368-1644) Wang Fu (Chinese, 1362-1416)

A Scholar’s Retreat amidst Autumn Trees, Ming dynasty (1368-1644)
Wang Fu (Chinese, 1362-1416)

This lovely poem speaks of a truth in many of our lives. How many times have we thought of a friend, just out of the blue. How nice it would be to see them. Then, the various problems associated with seeing this friend ensue.

Too snowy. Too rainy. Too hot. Too cold. Too busy. Too broke. Not enough time. Always something.

And then, there are the friends who are not embodied. The friends long since departed, gone to some distant coast, or perhaps location unknown. We think about the memories we shared, the times we wish we could have again. Our selves which always seem somehow better through the lens of time and distance.

Maybe what we truly miss is an ideal. A thought. A time we felt strong, or wise, or vital. It’s always in the past, or the future, or somewhere other than here.

How could I find the trail?

Many times the truth, sensation or experience we seek is deceptively near. Our brains search everywhere for this ephemeral thing called now. Maybe you can pick your way amongst the fallen leaves and find the trail to your friend’s house by taking a detour. Perhaps wandering with no destination will bring you home.

Allowing yourself the time and space to explore in the present moment is key.

Hi! My name is Chi. Well, my name was Chief, once upon a time. When I went to live with my new extended family, they shortened it to Chi. There’s a lot of reasons they did this. One, they wanted me to have a fresh start with a name phonetically similar to my old name, but without the bad memories for me. Two, I’m Chinese. You have to give a Chinese dog a Chinese name. It makes sense doesn’t it! Here’s what Chi means, from the great Wikipedia:

•                       Ch’i or qi (氣), “energy force” in Chinese culture

I sure am a great energy force! And I’m a great source of grounding for everyone around me. And I snuggle – a great heat source when it’s cold, and I am known to lower the blood pressure of my humans. I’m pretty cool.

Wikipedia has more good stuff to say.

In traditional Chinese culture (also chi or ch’i) is an active principle forming part of any living thing.[1][2][3] Qi is frequently translated as “life energy”, “life force”, or “energy flow”. Qi is the central underlying principle in traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts. The literal translation of “qi” is “breath”, “air”, or “gas”.

I’m not quite sure what active principle means, except that I do strut around a lot, and I prance. I’m cute too. I have a squiggly tail my family calls a qirky. I can make my mom laugh just by wiggling my qirky.

I breathe, and snort, and fart. See, that’s in the definition too. So, my name is really good for me.

Usually my mom writes this, but today I’m really glad she let me come and explain my name to you. I hope you all enjoyed learning more about me. Maybe she’ll let me talk with you again sometime.

I think it’s time for a nap… My mom tells me to tell you this topic prompt came from The Daily Post.

chinese_character_qi