Tai Chi Class

Welcome to WholenessInMotion. Tai chi is a whole body and mind exercise that combines meditation, martial art and health tonic in one. This particular form is the Yang style, 37 posture short form as taught by Prof. Cheng Man-ch'ing. This fascinating and intricate exercise has many benefits and just about anyone can practice it.

Take a look at this site and consider the study of relaxation and how it can benefit you in your daily life. I look forward to working with you. Tom Daly


 

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Tai Chi Chuan and Listening

Posted By Tom Daly on February 25th, 2016

Tai Chi Chuan and Listening

I’m always amazed at how poor most folk’s listening skills are.  I’ve done a lot of work on my own listening skills.  I’d say I have moved from D+ to maybe a B-. A few F’s here and there.

But even worse than listening to others, we rarely listen to ourselves.  By that I mean, what we say, what it means, how others hear it – this never registers. Often, we are clueless.

When we speak, there are two of us present, not just one.

And one would hope that tai chi might have some influence on this because so much of it has to do with awareness.  We begin with ourselves, we then work with others.  Yet how rare it is to see any of this spill into everyday life.

Let me give you an example of poor vs. good listening in life.

Poor:

T: I’m going to India.

B: wow, I know lots of people who have gone to India and hated it, though some have loved it. I think people get sick over there so you should be careful. The Taj Mahal is really worth seeing, my aunt was stunned by it, but she doesn’t want to go back to India, too many poor people, too sad.

(We’ve all been there!)

Good:

T: I’m going to India.

B: Where? (pause.)

What brings you to India? (pause.)

Do you have your reservation yet? (pause.)

When are you going? (pause.)

The point being, good listening engages the speaker to express themselves, poor listening takes control of the conversation.

In the poor example, B doesn’t even hear himself.  He just rattles on, oblivious to the statement T just made. (Because what T really said was: I’m going to India, do you find this of interest?) In certain situations, if you tell B what he just said, he may be surprised, deny it, or get angry. Or just not care.

The inability to hear yourself comes to mind in an example in Stephen Sondheim’s Passion.  Fosca (sad, sickly) is walking with a soldier she later comes to love.  He is rattling on about love in very idealistic and noble terms. He doesn’t see her need, her challenge in terms of intimacy, the improbability of attaining this ethereal concept in her sickly and somewhat morbid state.  She then lets him have it big time, pouring out her reaction to his self indulgent puffy nonsense. Let me paraphrase: “How dare you talk to me of such nonsense when it should be clear to both of us that this will never happen for me. Why taunt me with such a concept?” He wasn’t listening to what he was saying. Or who he was saying it to. Clueless.

Tai chi.

It would foolish to think that tai chi would change all this, yet the kernel of change is there.  You begin by listening to your body. For most beginners, this is a foreign concept. We never see our habits, never see our inability, and never see how our movement doesn’t match what the teacher demonstrates. Most who begin tai chi quit rather quickly. It’s a slow process.

Then we work in push hands, and again, mostly your partner is viewed in terms of what I want. As in, I want to do something to this person. But the study is more about being WITH this person and you become less and less while what they are doing/wanting becomes more and more. The only way to hear this person is to be empty. A favorite teacher I know says, “There is only one mind here, and it’s YOUR (the partner’s) mind.” His mind has been put on hold and now he can better hear you.

I highly recommend books on listening. There are lots of good ones on the market.

In tai chi, I recommend being even more attentive to what you are doing in the form and what your partner is doing in push hands.  By this I mean attentive like you might observe a laboratory rat.  How does it move? What does it want? What makes it go for the heroin?  Start with investigation, not manipulation. Be curious. Don’t fix it, just see it. Give it some time to be itself and see what that is. We move on from there…

We learn more from our flaws than from anything else. Begin with here and now, not some fantasy of who you would like to be. Find a time to listen, on every level, in some period of time, to something.

Just listen. Nothing else. Allow presence of this body, air, that person, sound, a feeling, ground, silence.

 

 

 

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No Time To Think – New York Times Opinion

Posted By Tom Daly on July 27th, 2014

Being busy is fine, but the inability to be with oneself is not.  Below is not so much about tai chi, but it does promote mental down time.  Hey, Google, of all places, offers its employees mindfulness meditation.  Slowing down, as tai chi reinforces, is invaluable.  Tom

No Time to Think

By KATE MURPHY

JULY 25, 2014

New York Times

ONE of the biggest complaints in modern society is being overscheduled, overcommitted and overextended. Ask people at a social gathering how they are and the stock answer is “super busy,” “crazy busy” or “insanely busy.” Nobody is just “fine” anymore.

When people aren’t super busy at work, they are crazy busy exercising, entertaining or taking their kids to Chinese lessons. Or maybe they are insanely busy playing fantasy football, tracing their genealogy or churning their own butter.

And if there is ever a still moment for reflective thought — say, while waiting in line at the grocery store or sitting in traffic — out comes the mobile device. So it’s worth noting a study published last month in the journal Science, which shows how far people will go to avoid introspection.

“We had noted how wedded to our devices we all seem to be and that people seem to find any excuse they can to keep busy,” said Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and lead author of the study. “No one had done a simple study letting people go off on their own and think.”

The results surprised him and have created a stir in the psychology and neuroscience communities. In 11 experiments involving more than 700 people, the majority of participants reported that they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes.

Moreover, in one experiment, 64 percent of men and 15 percent of women began self-administering electric shocks when left alone to think. These same people, by the way, had previously said they would pay money to avoid receiving the painful jolt.

It didn’t matter if the subjects engaged in the contemplative exercise at home or in the laboratory, or if they were given suggestions of what to think about, like a coming vacation; they just didn’t like being in their own heads.

It could be because human beings, when left alone, tend to dwell on what’s wrong in their lives. We have evolved to become problem solvers and meaning makers. What preys on our minds, when we aren’t updating our Facebook page or in spinning class, are the things we haven’t figured out — difficult relationships, personal and professional failures, money trouble, health concerns and so on. And until there is resolution, or at least some kind of understanding or acceptance, these thoughts reverberate in our heads. Hello rumination. Hello insomnia.

“One explanation why people keep themselves so busy and would rather shock themselves is that they are trying to avoid that kind of negative stuff,” said Ethan Kross, director of the Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan. “It doesn’t feel good if you’re not intrinsically good at reflecting.”

The comedian Louis C.K. has a riff that’s been watched nearly eight million times on YouTube in which he describes that not-good feeling. “Sometimes when things clear away and you’re not watching anything and you’re in your car and you start going, oh no, here it comes, that I’m alone, and it starts to visit on you, just this sadness,” he said. “And that’s why we text and drive. People are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second because it’s so hard.”

But you can’t solve or let go of problems if you don’t allow yourself time to think about them. It’s an imperative ignored by our culture, which values doing more than thinking and believes answers are in the palm of your hand rather than in your own head.

“It’s like we’re all in this addicted family where all this busyness seems normal when it’s really harmful,” said Stephanie Brown, a psychologist in Silicon Valley and the author of “Speed: Facing Our Addiction to Fast and Faster — and Overcoming Our Fear of Slowing Down.” “There’s this widespread belief that thinking and feeling will only slow you down and get in your way, but it’s the opposite.”

Suppressing negative feelings only gives them more power, she said, leading to intrusive thoughts, which makes people get even busier to keep them at bay. The constant cognitive strain of evading emotions underlies a range of psychological troubles such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression and panic attacks, not to mention a range of addictions. It is also associated with various somatic problems like eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, inflammation, impaired immunity and headaches.

Studies further suggest that not giving yourself time to reflect impairs your ability to empathize with others. “The more in touch with my own feelings and experiences, the richer and more accurate are my guesses of what passes through another person’s mind,” said Giancarlo Dimaggio, a psychiatrist with the Center for Metacognitive Interpersonal Therapy in Rome, who studies the interplay of self-reflection and empathy. “Feeling what you feel is an ability that atrophies if you don’t use it.”

Researchers have also found that an idle mind is a crucible of creativity. A number of studies have shown that people tend to come up with more novel uses for objects if they are first given an easy task that allows their minds to wander, rather than a more demanding one.

“Idle mental processing encourages creativity and solutions because imagining your problem when you aren’t in it is not the same as reality,” said Jonathan Smallwood, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of York, in England. “Using your imagination means you are in fact rethinking the problem in a novel way.”

Perhaps that’s why Google offers its employees courses called “Search Inside Yourself” and “Neural Self-Hacking,” which include instruction on mindfulness meditation, where the goal is to recognize and accept inner thoughts and feelings rather than ignore or repress them. It’s in the company’s interest because it frees up employees’ otherwise embattled brain space to intuit end users’ desires and create products to satisfy them.

“I have a lot of people who come in and want to learn meditation to shut out thoughts that come up in those quiet moments,” said Sarah Griesemer, a psychologist in Austin, Tex., who incorporates mindfulness meditation into her practice. “But allowing and tolerating the drifting in of thoughts is part of the process.” Her patients, mostly hard-charging professionals, report being more productive at work and more energetic and engaged parents.

To get rid of the emotional static, experts advise not using first-person pronouns when thinking about troubling events in your life. Instead, use third-person pronouns or your own name when thinking about yourself. “If a friend comes to you with a problem it’s easy to coach them through it, but if the problem is happening to us we have real difficulty, in part because we have all these egocentric biases making it hard to reason rationally,” said Dr. Kross of Michigan. “The data clearly shows that you can use language to almost trick yourself into thinking your problems are happening to someone else.”

Hard as they sometimes are, negative feelings are a part of everyone’s life, arguably more so if you are crazy busy. But it’s those same deep and troubling feelings, and how you deal with them, that make you the person you are. While busyness may stanch welling sadness, it may also limit your ability to be overcome with joy.

Kate Murphy is a journalist in Houston who writes frequently for The New York Times.

 

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The Biology of Risk – New York Times article

Posted By Tom Daly on June 11th, 2014

This long article has more to do with investing and its relation to stress and risk management.  However, it does bring out the biology of stress and its relationship to risk taking.  The really interesting thing to me is that increased stress leads to LESS risk taking during times of economic upheaval, therefore missing opportunities and in fact increasing the likelihood of economic downturn.  But be warned, this is a slow complex read….

Tai chi is definitely the middle way, reducing stress but hopefully keeping us engaged to life as it is (and therefore the opportunities that arise in the normal course of “stressful” lives.)  By reducing our biological stressors, we are then better equipped to evaluate which risks are better bets and which are not. 

This article notes that a certain amount of uncertainty in the markets keeps investors on their toes.  If they feel too comfortable (tai chi=collapsed) they ignore the dangers in front of them and respond inadequately.  By not giving into stress when uncertainty appears, they make better choices. 

Again, the body drives decision making beyond our conscious recognition.

The Biology of Risk

By JOHN COATES

New York Times, JUNE 7, 2014

SIX years after the financial meltdown there is once again talk about market bubbles. Are stocks succumbing to exuberance? Is real estate? We thought we had exorcised these demons. It is therefore with something close to despair that we ask: What is it about risk taking that so eludes our understanding, and our control?

Part of the problem is that we tend to view financial risk taking as a purely intellectual activity. But this view is incomplete. Risk is more than an intellectual puzzle — it is a profoundly physical experience, and it involves your body. Risk by its very nature threatens to hurt you, so when confronted by it your body and brain, under the influence of the stress response, unite as a single functioning unit. This occurs in athletes and soldiers, and it occurs as well in traders and people investing from home. The state of your body predicts your appetite for financial risk just as it predicts an athlete’s performance.

If we understand how a person’s body influences risk taking, we can learn how to better manage risk takers. We can also recognize that mistakes governments have made have contributed to excessive risk taking.

Consider the most important risk manager of them all — the Federal Reserve. Over the past 20 years, the Fed has pioneered a new technique of influencing Wall Street. Where before the Fed shrouded its activities in secrecy, it now informs the street in as clear terms as possible of what it intends to do with short-term interest rates, and when. Janet L. Yellen, the chairwoman of the Fed, declared this new transparency, called forward guidance, a revolution; Ben S. Bernanke, her predecessor, claimed it reduced uncertainty and calmed the markets. But does it really calm the markets? Or has eliminating uncertainty in policy spread complacency among the financial community and actually helped inflate market bubbles?

We get a fascinating answer to these questions if we turn from economics and look into the biology of risk taking.

ONE biological mechanism, the stress response, exerts an especially powerful influence on risk taking. We live with stress daily, especially at work, yet few people truly understand what it is. Most of us tend to believe that stress is largely a psychological phenomenon, a state of being upset because something nasty has happened. But if you want to understand stress you must disabuse yourself of that view. The stress response is largely physical: It is your body priming itself for impending movement.

As such, most stress is not, well, stressful. For example, when you walk to the coffee room at work, your muscles need fuel, so the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol recruit glucose from your liver and muscles; you need oxygen to burn this fuel, so your breathing increases ever so slightly; and you need to deliver this fuel and oxygen to cells throughout your body, so your heart gently speeds up and blood pressure increases. This suite of physical reactions forms the core of the stress response, and, as you can see, there is nothing nasty about it at all.

Far from it. Many forms of stress, like playing sports, trading the markets, even watching an action movie, are highly enjoyable. In moderate amounts, we get a rush from stress, we thrive on risk taking. In fact, the stress response is such a healthy part of our lives that we should stop calling it stress at all and call it, say, the challenge response.

This mechanism hums along, anticipating challenges, keeping us alive, and it usually does so without breaking the surface of consciousness. We take in information nonstop and our brain silently, behind the scenes, figures out what movement might be needed and then prepares our body. Many neuroscientists now believe our brain is designed primarily to plan and execute movement, that every piece of information we take in, every thought we think, comes coupled with some pattern of physical arousal. We do not process information as a computer does, dispassionately; we react to it physically. For humans, there is no pure thought of the kind glorified by Plato, Descartes and classical economics.

Our challenge response, and especially its main hormone cortisol (produced by the adrenal glands) is particularly active when we are exposed to novelty and uncertainty. If a person is subjected to something mildly unpleasant, like bursts of white noise, but these are delivered at regular intervals, they may leave cortisol levels unaffected. But if the timing of the noise changes and it is delivered randomly, meaning it cannot be predicted, then cortisol levels rise significantly.

Uncertainty over the timing of something unpleasant often causes a greater challenge response than the unpleasant thing itself. Sometimes it is more stressful not knowing when or if you are going to be fired than actually being fired. Why? Because the challenge response, like any good defense mechanism, anticipates; it is a metabolic preparation for the unknown.

You may now have an inkling of just how central this biology is to the financial world. Traders are immersed in novelty and uncertainty the moment they step onto a trading floor. Here they encounter an information-rich environment like none other. Every event in the world, every piece of news, flows nonstop onto the floor, showing up on news feeds and market prices, blinking and disappearing. News by its very nature is novel, adds volatility to the market and puts us into a state of vigilance and arousal.

I observed this remarkable call and echo between news and body when, after running a trading desk on Wall Street for 13 years, I returned to the University of Cambridge and began researching the neuroscience of trading.

In one of my studies, conducted with 17 traders on a trading floor in London, we found that their cortisol levels rose 68 percent over an eight-day period as volatility increased. Subsequent, as yet unpublished, studies suggest to us that this cortisol response to volatility is common in the financial community. A question then arose: Does this cortisol response affect a person’s risk taking? In a follow-up study, my colleagues from the department of medicine pharmacologically raised the cortisol levels of a group of 36 volunteers by a similar 69 percent over eight days. We gauged their risk appetite by means of a computerized gambling task. The results, published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that the volunteers’ appetite for risk fell 44 percent.

Most models in economics and finance assume that risk preferences are a stable trait, much like your height. But this assumption, as our studies suggest, is misleading. Humans are designed with shifting risk preferences. They are an integral part of our response to stress, or challenge.

When opportunities abound, a potent cocktail of dopamine — a neurotransmitter operating along the pleasure pathways of the brain — and testosterone encourages us to expand our risk taking, a physical transformation I refer to as “the hour between dog and wolf.” One such opportunity is a brief spike in market volatility, for this presents a chance to make money. But if volatility rises for a long period, the prolonged uncertainty leads us to subconsciously conclude that we no longer understand what is happening and then cortisol scales back our risk taking. In this way our risk taking calibrates to the amount of uncertainty and threat in the environment.

Under conditions of extreme volatility, such as a crisis, traders, investors and indeed whole companies can freeze up in risk aversion, and this helps push a bear market into a crash.

Unfortunately, this risk aversion occurs at just the wrong time, for these crises are precisely when markets offer the most attractive opportunities, and when the economy most needs people to take risks. The real challenge for Wall Street, I now believe, is not so much fear and greed as it is these silent and large shifts in risk appetite.

I consult regularly with risk managers who must grapple with unstable risk taking throughout their organizations. Most of them are not aware that the source of the problem lurks deep in our bodies. Their attempts to manage risk are therefore comparable to firefighters’ spraying water at the tips of flames.

The Fed, however, through its control of policy uncertainty, has in its hands a powerful tool for influencing risk takers. But by trying to be more transparent, it has relinquished this control.

Forward guidance was introduced in the early 2000s. But the process of making monetary policy more transparent was in fact begun by Alan Greenspan back in the early 1990s. Before that time the Fed, especially under Paul A. Volcker, operated in secrecy. Fed chairmen did not announce rate changes, and they felt no need to explain themselves, leaving Wall Street highly uncertain about what was coming next. Furthermore, changes in interest rates were highly volatile: When Mr. Volcker raised rates, he might first raise them, cut them a few weeks later, and then raise again, so the tightening proceeded in a zigzag. Traders were put on edge, vigilant, never complacent about their positions so long as Mr. Volcker lurked in the shadows. Street wisdom has it that you don’t fight the Fed, and no one tangled with that bruiser.

Under Mr. Greenspan, the Fed became less intimidating and more transparent. Beginning in 1994 the Fed committed to changing fed funds only at its scheduled meetings (except in emergencies); it announced these changes at fixed times; and it communicated its easing or tightening bias. Mr. Greenspan notoriously spoke in riddles, but his actions had no such ambiguity. Mr. Bernanke reduced uncertainty even further: Forward guidance detailed the Fed’s plans.

Under both chairmen fed funds became far less erratic. Whereas Mr. Volcker changed rates in a volatile fashion, up one week down the next, Mr. Greenspan and Mr. Bernanke raised them in regular steps. Between 2004 and 2006, rates rose .25 percent at every Fed meeting, without fail… tick, tick, tick. As a result of this more gradualist Fed, volatility in fed funds fell after 1994 by as much as 60 percent.

In a speech to the Cato Institute in 2007, Mr. Bernanke claimed that minimizing uncertainty in policy ensured that asset prices would respond “in ways that further the central bank’s policy objectives.” But evidence suggests that quite the opposite has occurred.

Cycles of bubble and crash have always existed, but in the 20 years after 1994, they became more severe and longer lasting than in the previous 20 years. For example, the bear markets following the Nifty Fifty crash in the mid-70s and Black Monday of 1987 had an average loss of about 40 percent and lasted 240 days; while the dot-com and credit crises lost on average about 52 percent and lasted over 430 days. Moreover, if you rank the largest one-day percentage moves in the market over this 40-year period, 76 percent of the largest gains and losses occurred after 1994.

I suspect the trends in fed funds and stocks were related. As uncertainty in fed funds declined, one of the most powerful brakes on excessive risk taking in stocks was released.

During their tenures, in response to surging stock and housing markets, both Mr. Greenspan and Mr. Bernanke embarked on campaigns of tightening, but the metronome-like ticking of their rate increases was so soothing it failed to dampen exuberance.

There are times when the Fed does need to calm the markets. After the credit crisis, it did just that. But when the economy and market are strong, as they were during the dot-com and housing bubbles, what, pray tell, is the point of calming the markets? Of raising rates in a predictable fashion? If you think the markets are complacent, then unnerve them. Over the past 20 years the Fed may have perfected the art of reassuring the markets, but it has lost the power to scare. And that means stock markets more easily overshoot, and then collapse.

The Fed could dampen this cycle. It has, in interest rate policy, not one tool but two: the level of rates and the uncertainty of rates. Given the sensitivity of risk preferences to uncertainty, the Fed could use policy uncertainty and a higher volatility of funds to selectively target risk taking in the financial community. People running factories or coffee shops or drilling wells might not even notice. And that means the Fed could keep the level of rates lower than otherwise to stimulate the economy.

It may seem counterintuitive to use uncertainty to quell volatility. But a small amount of uncertainty surrounding short-term interest rates may act much like a vaccine immunizing the stock market against bubbles. More generally, if we view humans as embodied brains instead of disembodied minds, we can see that the risk-taking pathologies found in traders also lead chief executives, trial lawyers, oil executives and others to swing from excessive and ill-conceived risks to petrified risk aversion. It will also teach us to manage these risk takers, much as sport physiologists manage athletes, to stabilize their risk taking and to lower stress.

And that possibility opens up exciting vistas of human performance.         

 

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Non-Doing Is, Oddly, Hard To Do

Posted By Tom Daly on December 13th, 2009

I’ve been having an interesting time teaching a simple exercise. We start to do it standing in the legs with little steps. At first I have the class do it as sort of an easy movement. Essentially we perform the movement, but it is sort of a glob. No real skill is being utilized. We “do” it.

Next, I begin to break it down in greater and greater specificity. This means that I’m looking at ways to accomplish the same movement but using relaxation and non-doing. As I articulate how to make it one whole non-doing movement, slowly but surely the students start to lose the movement altogether. Then they go through a time period where they feel they have mostly lost the movement. It falls apart in their hands.

One student commented that the more we work on it, the harder it gets. This is because the focus has shifted. As an unskilled glob, it was easy. But now we are relying on a whole body movement where all parts are integrated and working together. Each part individually is not required to hold you together. The whole is holding you together. One part is all parts. So each individual part has little to do, but more importantly each part must communicate with every other part.

Harder to not “do” it? How fascinating.

Of course, this is impossible to nail in print here because this is an experiential experiment. But the class goes from being able to “do” it, to not being able to “do” it. Nor are they able to NOT “do” it. We perpetually lock ourselves into the habit of doing in order to accomplish what is essentially a simple simple movement.

Or to put it another way, we only know how to do things, we don’t know how to allow things. Allowing relaxation, air, ground, structure, whole body integration to be the tools that hold us together and create a movement. Our habit, and therefore our experience, is that a sense of our doing things is how we get things done. If that support system is removed, we fall apart. Yet to utilize this other support system makes a world of sense because it requires much much less effort. It makes life easy. And now we have a surplus of energy. All that fuss and stiffness is gone.

I see our American sense of personality as a way of forcing results to happen as well. We throw this around like a calling card to help identify who we are and get what we want. This would be OK except this is often unnecessary, tiresome and inefficient. And it is so hard to let this go. Who are you and how do you act if you don’t access your personality? And so many times it actually gets in the way and prevents us from getting what we want.

This comes up a great deal in the work place where most of us are on automatic, getting things done as quickly as possible, and relying on habit to do so. Doing what comes naturally, which usually means how we have always done it via “doing”. The spaciousness and potential of non-doing is completely lost: mistakes are made, feelings are hurt, work is poorly executed, working relationships are damanged, information is misinterpreted and so on. Ever happen to you?

Oddly, in our culture, presenting who you are – your personality – is considered a necessary means of getting to know each other. But it is primarily this habit of doing that we are presenting. Maybe this is a good thing because it is this habit that we ultimately have to deal with. Isn’t it an insult to say “Mr. Jones” has no personality? Yet when we complain about someone, it is the personality that we are annoyed with. How ironic.

If nothing else, I would like to suggest that adding “non-doing”, or allowing, as a tool to get things done is a worthy pursuit and an invaluable practice. The art of tai chi is one way to study this (although not the only way.) Certainly you will add energy to your day since you now need less of it to do what you used to do. You get out of the way of what needs to be done. Your energy goes where it needs to go to accomplish tasks. You are no longer this stiff glob, but free flowing energy.

Yes, this IS difficult to do! Because we don’t practice this. Is “non-doing” on your to do list? It requires great focus and a certain kind of commitment. But the pleasure of tasting even a little bit of this is what tai chi students love. The thrill is palpable. Non-doing is a challenge, yes, but is also thrilling.

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The Tai Chi Habit

Posted By Tom Daly on September 10th, 2009

The Tai Chi Habit.

Well, not so fast. Let’s look at habits in general….

I was at the Zendo some time ago and I saw something that has stuck in my mind. There was this male sitting in Zen meditation and, along with all of us, he was at it for roughly an hour with a kin-kin walking meditation in the middle. But unlike the rest of the group, his torso was not vertically upright. He held it leaning back, perhaps at a 20 degree angle off the vertical. This was not someone with a disability. He was merely in the habit of leaning back while sitting zazen. In order to do this, he had to be holding muscles tightly to maintain the angle for an hour. Looking at him made my back ache, but I’d guess this felt normal to him. I don’t know where he learned sitting meditation and I suspect he doesn’t have a teacher. But generally, one is taught to sit erect in order to find a line of balance that is comfortable. Just like in tai chi.

So here was a good example of someone with a poor habit, at least in terms of a comfortable posture. Perhaps his habit gave him a sense that what he was doing was comfortable. His muscle holding pattern had been sufficiently developed so that what would hurt the average person felt OK as far as he was concerned. And if you corrected him, the new posture would feel uncomfortable to him. Such are the ways of habit. What’s “wrong” feels right and what’s “right” feels wrong.

In a way, of course, we are all like my example here. The only difference is that our patterns may not be as visible or dramatic. We are in a somewhat correct place, but still, there are uncomfortable holding patterns that are hard to see, and even more difficult to feel, because we have become accustomed to the position. What feels normal is not correct, but merely a habit that blinds us to what would be truly comfortable. There are 656 to 850 muscles in the body (depending on which expert you consult) and to arrange them properly is a science and an art.

In tai chi we are aiming for perfect relaxation so that precisely the muscles that are needed in any given movement are free to do the job exactly as required. Improper muscle usage blocks freedom of movement. This is why the study of tai chi requires great attention. It is very difficult to discern habit and improper use of muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints, from relaxation and proper muscular tonus.

Holding a posture for a long time can be a double edged sword. Often it will reveal that you are tensing some muscle improperly. But habit can also hide poor muscular usage and actually make the habit itself WORSE. We unconsciously tell ourselves, “I am right because it feels right.” But it is the habit that makes it feel right. The mind assumes that what you are doing is correct and this will override the actual experience in the body.

Answers? Here are a few but I can’t claim this is a complete list.

1. A good teacher. (In addition to tai chi, The Alexander Technique is a superb method to focus on recognizing and changing habits.)

2. Aim for comfort. Since comfort may in fact be habit, search for deeper comfort than the level you currently inhabit.

3. Try it different ways to experiment.

4. Aim for the whole picture, not just the isolated area of concern.

5. Do the posture as if you are a marionette and see if you can find a way let the structure fall into place.

6. Use non-doing as a guide.

7. Let the body fill from the inside out and see if you can find a feeling of releasing into space and ground.

8. Balance the top of your head with the bottom of your feet with the right and the left and front and back of the room and the four corners. Be balanced in space so you can let your body relax but in a round way.

9. It may be helpful from time to time to look at a mirror and see if what you think you are doing IS what you are doing. It is not a good idea to rely on mirrors, however.

I haven’t bothered here to note habitual ways of THINKING. That is yet another level.

The tai chi habit is to practice on a regular basis, and to examine again and again any habitual patterns (mind and body) that may be interfering with relaxation. We need to play with our structure and test it out.

Let go of being right. Let go of being wrong.

Get in the habit of trying something new.

That’s the tai chi habit!

Tai Chi, Stress and Struggle – NOT!

Posted By Tom Daly on May 9th, 2009

Our world, our lives, at many times, involves stress and struggle. It is one of those things that actually creates growth and innovation. Tai chi has a great deal to teach us regarding stress and struggle. While we are programmed for fight or flight, there is an alternative.

There is stress, and then there is STRESS!!!!! And depending on our conditioning, this is either a good thing or a bad thing. We all know of that individual (perhaps you?) that actually finds the challenge of overcoming stress to be enjoyable. There are those of us who want nothing more than to avoid it. It’s too uncomfortable. We avoid it to the extent that when we can’t, we have stress on top of stress. I often see stress as “good” stress or “bad” stress. One motivates, the other defeats! That boundary, the shift from good to bad varies with each individual.

Learning tai chi for most beginners is a challenge. We are asked to be very specific in what we are doing with the hands and feet and pelvis and torso and head and the “center” (tan t’ien). The effort to be correct is anything but relaxing, yet we are encouraged to be correct, and then relax. Or more perplexing, relax and this will correct you. Of course both are true, but underneath all of this is a stressful situation. It is inherent in the learning process. In this way, tai chi replicates life.

I recall my own beginning. I was sort of good at putting the hands and feet in the right place. Then my teacher noted, “You work very hard…. TOO hard!” Man, you can’t win! I thought. But that is the teaching of tai chi – there are layers and looking correct is not necessarily correct. To be in the right shape, but not hold the shape, to relax the shape, to allow the shape to emerge from the movement, from the ground, from the air, from the center – all of this is going on. We tend to put ourselves in a vise, to squeeze ourselves into what we think is correct.

So to begin tai chi is to volunteer to work with something that looks easy, but in fact is not. This is dealing with stress in a good way, a playful way. Beginners need to pick at it bit by bit and enjoy the small victories until the day when it finally falls, more or less, into place. It is a pleasurable process. This is one reason that we learn it so slowly. We can’t be overwhelmed by the process in order to learn. We deal with enough stress to learn, but we do this slowly so that eventually there is some ease and relaxation too. Sometimes you just have to hang in there with the discomfort before grace falls from above.

My teacher, Maggie Newman, is always looking for a way to make it more comfortable. That may seem trivial, but in fact it is essential. Consider what Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival, Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why has to say about children aged 6 and under. This group has one of the highest survival rates when caught in a disastrous situation, better than experienced hunters, physically fit hikers, former members of the military or skilled sailors. One aspect is that they try to make themselves comfortable, and staying comfortable helps keep them alive.

It is hard to say what will create real relaxation and comfort – each of us responds to something different, though each of us must maintain some level of effort to continue on. For some, this can take quite a while. This can feel like a struggle. Yet, stay with it long enough and it will happen. I have never seen anyone not make progress in their work on tai chi.

But wait! It gets worse! Now you have to be all of that, and let someone attack you. A new stress and a very complicated struggle. How on earth can relaxation lead to a martial art? Put two bodies together – any two bodies – and you have a struggle. In fact you have two layers of struggle: the first is within your own body, which now refuses to maintain all the hard won relaxation (mysteriously vanished!) and the second struggle is between two bodies as you try to deal with your partner’s attack.

Here, again, the wonder of tai chi gives you a new challenge. I often work with advanced form students who think that because they have skill in the form that this will automatically translate into good push-hands. They don’t realize that they have to take what skill they have and add to it. The only way to add to it is to practice push-hands with a partner. Because push-hands is complex, this requires great attention and time. The more you practice, the more you learn and the more interesting it becomes. But at first, it is usually a mystery (and a frustrating one at that!)

Of course, you have been practicing some of these skills while learning the form, but this context is very different. Now you have to adjust to an outside force that is moving at you. What are these new skills? Fundamentally, you need to stick and follow the direction of your partner. You have to play THEIR tune, and this requires listening with your physical body. You intentionally create harmony. You become as easy to move as a helium balloon, but as grounded as the Empire State Building. Stick, follow, listen… stick, follow, listen. AND keep connecting them into your feet. Make the two of you one big ball. You are only half of the equation at this point, no longer the whole ball that you were when doing the form. Don’t disturb their pathway. Again, find a way to make this comfortable. This becomes YOUR responsibility. If a pressure presents itself, be sure it connects to your rooted foot. These are rather new skills that you add to your relaxed, structurally sound, whole body movement from the form. One teacher told a push hands class to NOT STRUGGLE. Give up struggling. How? That is part of the struggle, discovering how to give up struggling. Again, there is intentionality at play here, and new skills to be learned.

So in a special way, tai chi replicates stress and struggle in life, but simultaneously offers you solutions to that very stress and struggle. Tai chi is about solving that problem. What a wonderful problem to solve!

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