Archive for November, 2009

relaxation and serenity

November 20, 2009

“Pond Reflection” by Ren Adams

To pick up on what I was talking about in my last post…so what’s so desirable about inner quiet, serenity, and relaxation?  To us Americans, relaxation seems OK occassionally, but too much relaxation sounds boring, even lazy.   Why do Taoists put so much value in relaxing, and calming the mind?  Why do they think relaxation helps so much in improving health and longevity, and even in defending oneself using Tai Chi?  What is powerful about relaxing?  This is one of the many paradoxes about Taoism that fascinates me.

As part of my job, I’ve been learning, more and more, about the negative impact of stress on people.  Not only can stress, especially extreme or chronic stress, make you feel bad psychologically…it can literally and dramatically reduce the number of brain cells you make, shrink parts of your brain, and make you more vulnerable to depression and a host of physical problems.  It seems most of us living in 21st century America, especially those of use living in cities, deal with chronic, excessive stress, of one sort or another, and haven’t learned to handle the stress, to let it go, to relax.  I count myself as one of those who needs help with that.

OK, so relaxing, if you could do it, could maybe help you prevent medical or psychological problems.  But what’s the deal with relaxing in Tai Chi?  How can relaxation translate into physical and mental power?

In the late 1990’s, I used to be a huge fan of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.  Before I got into basketball, I had heard some talk about Michael Jordan and what an amazing player he is, but had never really watched him play.  I distinctly remember the first time I watched him play on TV, and I remember that the first thing that struck me about him was his physical relaxation.  Although he moved quickly and smoothly around the court, and had bursts of intensity, he generally looked extremely relaxed physically, loose, almost lazy in his movements…well lazy is not the right word, but he moved with such ease that there didn’t seem to be even a tiny bit of wasted energy.  Later, I read an interview of Phil Jackson, the coach of the Bulls at the time, and learned more about Jordan’s ability to relax mentally, even during high pressure situations..

Jackson:  “….the most serene person I’ve ever seen is Michael [Jordon].  He has a great sense of awareness.  He loves the feeling of being calm in the midst of a storm of activity.  He’d like to have that feeling every waking hour.  People say Michael has a gambling problem.  He doesn’t have a gambling problem; he’s got a problem of loving to have that storm going on around him and feeling like he’s in the eye of it.”

Tricycle:  The Buddist Review, vol III, No. 4, Summer 1994, p.93-94.

Another great example of an athlete who has that sense of serenity; of flowing, effortless power; of “calm in the midst of a storm” is the Yankees closing pitcher, Mariano Rivera.  It seems that the very best athletes have this ability to relax, mentally and physically, which allows them to reach a level of peak performance.   Another good article about this was in an October 2, 2008 New York Times article by Gina Kolata.

“LIKE so many people around the world, Dr. Michael Joyner was transfixed watching Michael Phelps swim in the Summer Olympics. But while many of us focused on Mr. Phelps’s world records, Dr. Joyner, a competitive Masters swimmer and an exercise researcher at the Mayo Clinic, noticed something else.  ‘I have never seen anyone so relaxed in the water,’ he said…’It’s the paradox of athletics,’ said Rick DeMont, associate head coach for men’s swimming at the University of Arizona and a former Olympian. ‘Tension is slow, tension is inefficient. You need to be relaxed.’ And relaxation can be taught….People like Michael Phelps, these experts say, are masters of relaxation, able to get into a rhythm and stay there even with the intense pressure of Olympic competition.”

–Gina Kolata, The New York Times, October 2, 2008

A Tai Chi Chuan expert, a true master, was asked how he achieved his high level of skill and power in the martial art, one that so few could match.  What was his secret?  This was his response:

“You are right.  There is a secret.  But it is so simple as to be unbelievable.  Its nature insists that you believe, that you have faith; otherwise you will fail.  The secret is simply this:  you must relax body and mind totally…I relaxed my body and stilled my mind so that only ch’i, flowing at the command of my mind, remained…By emptying myself, I gave the full field to ch’i.”

–Cheng Man-ch’ing and Robert W. Smith, T’ai Chi:  The “Supreme Ultimate” Exercise for Health, Sport, and Self-Defense, 2004, p.101

Ch’i is a Chinese word for internal energy…or that’s the best that I understand it.  If you tense up and can’t relax, Taoists believe that the ch’i can’t flow, and that you can’t make use of this internal energy.  It’s only by relaxing completely that you can tap into this power.   This is also related to the Taoist idea of wei wu wei..which means literally “doing not-doing”…a kind of relaxed state in which amazing things can be done that appear relaxed, effortless, flowing, beautiful.   It reminds me of what Professor Mike Csikzentmihalyi call a “flow” state.

I have seen people close to me get into this state.  Like when my wife, GEM, finally was able to relax enough to start writing the end of her Ph.D. dissertation, and then it just flowed out of her onto paper, very quickly, and what she wrote was amazing…seriously…although she would be too modest to admit it.  Or like when I watched my brother-in-law (GEM’s brother), who is a pilot, land a plane using a flight simulator I had bought…he became super relaxed and calm (unlike my panicked state when I tried to land the pretend plane), a state I had never quite seen him in before, and I could tell he was in his element and loved this, a fish in water…

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved


inner quiet

November 17, 2009 “Balance Bamboo” by Ren Adams

I’m not a Taoist, but I aspire to be one — to approach life as a Taoist approaches life.   I’d love to be able to deal with the craziness of life, its ups and downs, its stresses and demands, and still maintain a sense of inner serenity, relaxation, quiet, tranquility.   I live a hectic life, with a terrific wife and 2 wonderful, very young sons, and a very demanding job, and constant busyness, emails, deadlines, rushing, time crunches etc….like many people in America….at least those lucky enough to have a job.

Sometimes during a weekday, as I sit at my desk, I am able to momentarily reflect on what I’m doing in front of my computer, and realize that my shoulders are tensing up, I’m leaning to the side in some strange way, and barely breathing.  One thing that helps me, if I find myself in that state, is to purposely try to relax my shoulders, feel the muscles relaxing and dissolving.  I’ve been reading about Tai Chi Chuan, the martial art based on Taoist principles, and even recently started to take Tai Chi lessons. In Tai Chi, you are supposed to sit or stand while imagining that the top of your head, the crown point, is being suspended from above from an invisible string, which tends to lengthen your spine.  With your head suspended like that, you then let your shoulders drop, and relax the rest of the body completely.   You also tune in to your own breathing, becoming aware of your breath going in and out, and allowing your breaths to become long, slow, thin, and quiet.  If I can do these things, even for few seconds, occassionally during the day, it tends to de-stress me and settle me down.  I would love to get to the level of relaxation that people write about when you get good at Tai Chi, which is a kind of moving meditation.  The people who really do Tai Chi well describe reaching a state that is so relaxed and meditative that one’s whole body feels transparent.

“It is best to forget your own existence…Your entire body should be transparent and empty.”
–Waysun Liao, Tai Chi Classics, 1990, p. 126

To some, this sound weird or boring…but if you’re chronically stressed out, it could be really nice…restorative.

How do you get there? What seems even tougher is to maintain a sense of inner quiet during moments of heightening stress. What is amazing about Tai Chi, to me, is that a goal is to maintain this sense of inner calm and quiet even during a fight, which is one of the most stressful situations imaginable.  “Push hands” is part of Tai Chi training in which you begin to learn to apply the principles of Tai Chi to sparring with a partner.   I haven’t gotten there yet in my lessons, but have started to read about it…

“In Push Hands practice…regardless of how rapidly the situation changes, you should remain calm and easy…even if a difficult situation builds into a seemingly uncontrollable situation, you should still control yourself in a peaceful and easy manner…allowing no disturbance from external stimuli.”
–Waysun Liao, Tai Chi Classics, 1990, p. 122

“In performing the [Tai Chi] forms, you should be like the eagle which glides serenely on the wind, but which can swoop instantly to pluck a rabbit from the ground.”
–Waysun Liao, Tai Chi Classics, 1990, p. 115

I know, I know…poor rabbit. I don’t like it either. But that image of gliding serenely on the wind…sounds great to me. So you somehow reach a level in which you can be engaged in an extremely rapidly changing situation, fully, exquisitely aware of what’s going on around you so that you can react and respond to it in real time, yet maintain an inner quiet…how is this possible? I would love to be able to live like that…I hope in this blog to talk about my quest to try to find a way to do this…and a way to adopt other Taoist ways, which I’ll talk more about in future posts.

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved

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