The "Glimpse" That Keeps Us Coming Back to Tai Chi, Qigong, Bagua and Xingyi

Ravine 2
The "Ravine" at Eastern KY University in Richmond, my alma mater.

A Taiji instructor and a former guest on the Internal Fighting Arts podcast, Kimberly Ivy of Seattle, wrote a post on Facebook a few days ago that brought back some vivid memories for me, and reminded me of one reason I have kept coming back to these arts decade after decade, putting myself through the hard work and practice to get better at these skills.

She wrote that some of her long-time students, some of them off-and-on students, told her that it was the occasional "glimpse" they received when practicing that kept them coming back.

Ahh, yes. The "Glimpse."

I first experienced the "Glimpse" around 1980. I had been involved in martial arts for seven years at that point, and I had been studying Zen Buddhism and Taoist philosophy. One of my favorite books was "Zen Buddhism," by Christmas Humphreys. I loved reading the koans -- little anecdotes or riddles that are supposed to make you realize the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to trigger enlightenment: the "Glimpse."

Here is a koan:

A monk asked Kegon, “How does an enlightened one return to the ordinary world?”
Kegon replied, “A broken mirror never reflects again; fallen flowers never go back to the old branches.”

Here is another good one:

One day as Manjusri stood outside the gate, the Buddha called to him, “Manjusri, Manjusri, why do you not enter?”
Manjusri replied, “I do not see myself as outside. Why enter?”

Most people are familiar with the famous koan: What is the sound of one hand clapping? It is usually said as a joke in the United States. No one actually reflects on the meaning behind the riddle.

So I was sitting one day around 1980 in the Ravine at my alma mater, Eastern Kentucky University. I spent a lot of time there when I was a student (graduated in 1975 with a double major in journalism and broadcasting). It was a terraced field, leading down to an ampitheater, nestled almost in the center of campus.

1980 was a rough year. I was working in TV news but earning so little money, my wife and I were teetering on bankruptcy. My wife was pregnant and having serious mental health issues related to the pregnancy. The baby, a little girl named Shara, would die at six weeks of age from crib death later in the year.

RavineI was visiting EKU and decided to sit in the Ravine and meditate, touching the ground like Antaeus, who maintained his strength as long as he was in contact the ground. Perhaps it would renew my strength for the daily battle.

It was a sunny day. I sat on one of the terraced steps of grass and tried to calm my mind and body, detaching and letting all thoughts and concerns go.

A few moments later, just as I reached my calmest moment, a robin landed in front of me in the grass, just a few feet away. It turned and looked at me. Our eyes met.

For a few short seconds, I felt my connection to the bird and to all things in the universe. A sense of calm, order and acceptance washed through me. It was the most complete feeling of peace I had ever experienced.

Then, just as quickly, the moment I thought, "This is satori," it was gone. Vanished. And I was back in my own head.

When you reach for it, you cannot grasp it. Once you get back into your own head, it is gone.

This moment, this "Glimpse" stayed with me. It consumed my mind all the way back to Lexington that day. And I immediately tried to look for it again. But it does not come very easily when you are caught up in daily activities and concerns.

Satori is when you suddenly are aware of your connection to all things; your place in the universe; your "One True Nature." Sometimes, we simply refer to it as a "connection." 

Some people attempt to achieve this through religion, but too often in our society, that means a benevolent (or malevolent) dictator above you, ready to reward or punish your every thought. It too often involves judging others and meddling in their lives, particularly on "social issues." 

The "Glimpse" I'm talking about does not depend on invisible beings or gods. In my opinion, having experienced both worlds, I eventually rejected the religious view for a different path. If you are reading this and think, "Oh, I get the same feeling from (Insert Name of Deity Here)," then I would simply note that you probably have not traveled this path.

In 1987, I began studying the internal arts and qigong. Since then, I have had several moments of the "Glimpse." It can happen in the middle of a form, when I feel my body flowing through the movement. It can happen when doing Standing Stake or another qigong exercise. It can happen when I am sitting on the couch with Nancy.

The "Glimpse" keeps me coming back. 

On the day that I took my black sash test in the style of kung-fu I was studying in 1997, part of the test involved sparring another black sash with a wooden broadsword. We got into our fighting stances and prepared for the start of the match. I tried to center myself and connect. A calmness came over me, and I felt as if I was part of my opponent.

Mr. Garrett moved to thrust his broadsword and before he could move more than a couple of inches, my broadsword was at his chest.

Ahh, the "Glimpse." Just at the time you need it the most.

Do you ever get the "Glimpse?" It comes when you are in the moment, your ego is gone, your awareness broadens and your mind opens to your One True Nature as it relates to all things, without judging, without liking or disliking.

The journey to achieve this takes you to a place where you react differently to relationships, to aggression, to tragedy, and even to tough deadlines at work. You can take the first step with qigong exercises, Standing Stake and internal art forms. And a great book to read is "Zen Buddhism" by Christmas Humphreys.

It is a journey worth taking.  

Here is a website with some great koans to stimulate your mind. And there is a second type of "Glimpse" you get when practicing the internal arts. That will be the topic of my next blog post.


Changing Yin to Yang -- Turning a Negative Life Situation into a Positive

Ken Defense 97
Oh, really, Life? You want a piece of this? 1997

What do you do when life gives you a roundhouse kick to the head? A punch to the groin? A heel kick to the solar plexus?

Nineteen years ago this morning, I walked into WHBF-TV, where I was news director, and management was waiting for me. I was pulled into a meeting where the GM and the Program Director told me they were letting me go. In the news business, it happens.

"Ken, we're parting company," the GM said.

"I have two words for you," I replied, and saw them brace as they sat across the table.

"Thank you," I said.

I left the station, and by the next day, realized that while I was looking for another job, I would train hard and finally test for my black sash in kung-fu.

I worked hard for a month, went to Omaha to test, and succeeded. I began teaching by October. By that time, I was working at Mike Bawden's ad agency in Davenport. From there, I went to ACT (the college test) as director of media relations.

Being fired from a job changed my life in a very positive way. Besides pushing me toward a new career in media relations, PR and communications, it helped me take steps that have resulted in a third career, teaching martial arts to people around the world through this blog, my DVDs and my membership website

After more than eight years at ACT, I decided to try something new, so I took a job as director of media relations at the University of South Florida. It was a great job, but I found myself being asked to hold news conferences and do media interviews on sensitive topics ranging from students arrested on terrorism charges to football players accused of cheating. It was more intensely political than I expected, and each time I did an interview on behalf of President Genshaft, I walked away with arrows in my back, often fired from within the University.

Within a year, I was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation and a week later, I found myself without a job. My nephew, Brian Ragsdale called to talk, and he sparked the idea for my website, www.internalfightingarts.com. I would work for myself, putting all the instruction onto video lessons that I had been teaching my students for over a decade. I would offer it to people around the world who wanted to study but didn't have a teacher nearby. I began making DVDs more prolifically, and on July 4, 2008, the website was born and it is going stronger than ever eight years later.

None of it would have happened if management hadn't asked me, 19 years ago this morning, "Ken, you got a minute?"

Yes, I do. I "got" all the minutes you want. 

How can you turn a life-changing negative event into something positive? You can do it. I am living proof. But after all, one of the things our philosophy in kung-fu is supposed to do is help you ride the ups and downs of life, isn't it? Trust me, I've seen as many downs as anyone. If you hang in long enough and work at it, yin will always turn into yang again. The wheel turns.

Sometimes, an event that seems to be really bad at the moment can be just the push you need. The next step is yours.


The Tao of Tai Chi -- Part 2 of the Internal Fighting Arts Interview with Taoist Monk Yunrou

Yunrou Guan Dao
Chen Tai Chi instructor and Taoist Monk Yunrou.

The 19th edition of the Internal Fighting Arts podcast features the second part of a two-part interview with Chen Tai Chi instructor and Taoist Monk Yunrou. He became known as Arthur Rosenfeld, as a martial artist and author, but has taken on the name he was ordained with as a Taoist monk -- Yunrou.

This interview covers some interesting topics:

** The need to boost the self-defense aspects of Tai Chi.

** The problem of "having a plan" in fighting.

** The Guan Do and its relationship to Tai Chi Chuan.

** Becoming ordained as a Taoist monk.

Yunrou lives and teaches in the Pompano Beach/Boca Raton area of Florida. His website is www.monkyunrou.com. 

Here is the link to listen online or download the podcast on Audello. 

Internal Fighting Arts 19 - Taoist Monk Yunrou Part 2

 

 


Interview with Taoist Monk Yunrou -- The Internal Fighting Arts Podcast

YunrouArthur Rosenfeld is an author, ordained Taoist Monk who was ordained with the name Yunrou (pronounced "Yoon-ro"), teacher and a student of Chen Taiji Master Yan Gaofei.

As Arthur Rosenfeld, he is author of more than a dozen books, including "Tai Chi: The Perfect Exercise." He has also written fiction, and his newest book, "Yin," written under the name Yunrou, is described as a "Lao Tzu love story" and will be published November 1, 2015.

This is part one of a two-part interview with Yunrou, in which he talks about the forces in his life that drove him toward the martial arts, Chen Taiji, and the philosophy of Taoism.

You can listen to the podcast online or download the file via this link: http://internalfightingarts.audello.com/internal-fighting-arts-18-taoist-monk-yunrou/.

It will also be available on iTunes, where you can become a subscriber. 

By the way, at the end of the podcast, Yunrou tells of an incident he was involved in at Starbucks, resulting in a "random act of consciousness." You can see the story that went viral by clicking this link to the NBC Nightly News report.


Connecting -- The Number One Skill in Tai Chi, Hsing-I or Bagua

Ken Gullette sparring 1980
I am on the right against a fast, skilled opponent.

I was sparring a guy in 1980 and he was taking it to me. He was fast, with a great reverse punch that had nailed me a couple of times as I moved in on him. I was tensing up, trying to figure out how to beat him.

Then I connected. I relaxed and got my head out of the match. I waited with a relaxed state of readiness for him to move.

When he attacked, I was already moving. When he arrived, I was already there and planted a hook kick on the side of his face.

Ken Gullette Hook Kick 1980
After connecting, I was ready for his attack and nailed him with a hook kick.

When I took my black sash test in 1997, among the many tasks I had to perform was a sparring match with wooden broadswords to show strategy, technique, and skill. My "opponent" was another black sash with a wooden broadsword. He was cocky and considered himself a lot better.

I relaxed and calmed my mind. I centered, and connected with him. We assumed the on guard stance. 

The instant he moved toward me with his sword, the tip of my broadsword was already touching his shirt at the heart. It would have been a clean kill. One cut, fight over.

Have you ever sparred with a martial artist whose reactions to your techniques were sluggish and seemed to lag behind yours? 

You throw a technique and it gets through, or he deflects it, but his counter comes after a beat, giving you plenty of time to throw another attack or prepare for the counter. It's as if he has no idea you are going to attack until the attack has landed.

He is not connected.

When you are not connected, you will always work a step or two behind your opponent or your partner. Being connected allows you to respond like an echo, or as the Tai Chi classic says, "When my opponent moves, I move faster. When my opponent arrives, I am already there."

The same is true in Hsing-I and Bagua. 

Look at this video. It shows a Hsing-I fighter who thinks that if he just has a good San Ti stance, he is doing Hsing-I. He is not connected to his partner and the result -- he gets knocked out.

Maybe this isn't fair. This is a poorly trained fighter. He has no business being in a full contact match. I hate seeing someone suffer a concussion for such a stupid reason as this. A concussion can change your life. But this post isn't about that sort of stupidity -- it's about the lack of a connection with your opponent, which he displays.

 

The art of connecting to your opponent is the number one skill in the internal arts and there are plenty of ways to practice. Here is one.

Connecting Drill #1

 

Connecting Drill Ken Gullette - Justin Snow
A connecting drill -- my partner prepares to try and slap my hands.

Your partner should stand with his hands at his sides. You will stand in front of him with your hands in a "prayer" posture (palms together) held out at a range where he can reach them.

Your partner is not allowed to fake. His goal is to slap your hands before you can pull them away. 

This drill requires you to relax -- remain in a relaxed state of readiness -- and be hyper-sensitive to your partner's intent and his physical movement. You must pull your hands out of the way before your partner can slap them.

Connecting Drill 2 - Ken Gullette and Justin Snow
I connect with Justin Snow, my partner, and get out of the way before his hand can slap mine.

After a couple of minutes, switch sides. You will hold your hands at your sides and your partner will hold his hands out, giving you a chance to slap them. He will need to connect with you and pull his hands out of the way before you can slap them.

This is also a good reaction drill and a speed drill, too. If you are trying to slap your partner's hands and you telegraph your movement, he will easily be able to avoid being slapped.

This is just one of many connecting drills. The concept can be carried forward into sparring. Become your opponent. Relax and be ready. Anticipate his movement. When his attack begins, you should already be moving. When his technique arrives, you are already there.

Connecting is not just a concept for fighting. This is a skill that also carries into your daily life. Are you connected to the people at work? Can you anticipate when your boss or a co-worker has a need for your skills? 

At home, are you connected with your spouse and your children, or do you mentally detach yourself? Do you listen? Do you become "one" with your partner?

When you interact with the world, are you connected? Are you doing more damage than good to our planet and to the creatures that inhabit it? Can you do better?

Do you have empathy for other people who feel wronged, abused, or disrespected by society or by authority? Can you connect with them and see the world through their eyes?

A lot of good things happen when you learn to connect.


No Room for Fear -- What You Should Expect from Your Personal Philosophy

 

Upswing-4-26-15
On the upswing again and rockin' the headband monitor look in my hospital room.

Caution: this post contains a very graphic photo below. If blood upsets you, don't scroll down.

I have spent five of the past six nights in the hospital, including two trips in an ambulance. I've had to postpone a podcast interview and a few gongfu practices.

It started when I was sitting in my home office and began coughing up blood. This went on for over half an hour. It stopped for half an hour and then began even harder. Nancy called 911 and the ambulance came.

By the time the coughing stopped, long after I arrived in the ER, about two pints of blood had come up from my lungs and out my mouth. At one point, it dawned on me that blood loss could cause me to pass out and there was a chance I wouldn't wake up. The ER at Illini Hospital couldn't help me, so after the bleeding stopped they sent me by ambulance 90 minutes away to Iowa City and the University of Iowa's Medical Intensive Care Unit.

They said HALF the people who come in bleeding from the lungs like this usually die.

After two days of observations and tests, I was released from Intensive Care on Thursday when they realized they couldn't help me immediately. Both my pulmonary veins on my left lung are blocked, and the blood is having a hard time draining out of the left lung, they believe. The next step may be to take out the lower lobe of the left lung, try to salvage the upper pulmonary vein, and remove the entire lung if that won't work.

Either way, my quality of life might improve and I can continue my life and my gongfu practice without the horror of coughing up blood, which has happened occasionally for the past six years. A year ago this week, after bleeding for a few days, I ended up in the hospital with pneumonia. 

By the way, I sometimes receive messages from well-intentioned but delusional folks who believe I would not have these issues if I was doing qigong properly. One person -- who I will not call a moron because I am feeling centered -- said that he watched one of my Xingyi videos and could tell me how to adjust my movement so that my health would improve.

Sometimes, you just have to laugh.

My condition is actually the result of medical malpractice, not a lack of chi, my friends. And besides, how many qigong masters can you name who have lived past age 100? As you ponder that one, here is another question. How do you know that I am not still alive because my chi is so powerful? You know it is possible that I have done qigong and my Pi Chuan (related to the lungs) so well, I have survived something that would kill an ordinary man. But if you really do believe that my lack of chi is at fault for this situation, that means you believe superstitious pseudoscience, and if you do, you are invited to NOT leave a comment on this blog.

So I went home from Intensive Care on Thursday, aware that coughing up two pints of blood meant pneumonia was a possibility, and sure enough, by Friday evening I took a shower and couldn't breathe, so Nancy called 911 and an ambulance took me back to the hospital, where I was pumped with antibiotics and oxygen and was coughing up tarballs leftover from the bleeding. I was struggling to maintain oxygen levels above 90% (below 90% can damage organs).

I have done a lot of online communication with friends and family because it has been difficult to speak without coughing. On Saturday, I was talking to a couple of my best friends on the phone. I've known them both since I was a child, and they met and married in their twenties. The woman said, "Kenny, we are all scared for you and we know you must be scared."

Her comment surprised me. She is wonderful, funny, kind, and very religious, a conservative Christian who I first met when we attended the same church (the pastor of which is a creationist). We never discuss religion, and that's fine, but I suddenly realized that I needed to make a point.

"You know," I replied. "I certainly am in no hurry to leave, but to be really honest with you, I am not scared of anything. I feel determination and an intense desire to stay with Nancy and continue enjoying life with my children, grandchildren and friends, but there really is nothing to be scared of."

It was a message that she needed to hear, and perhaps you do, too. If your personal philosophy or your religious belief system has not freed you from the fear of death, it is just my opinion that you are dealing with a bad belief system, or you simply have not yet learned how to apply your belief system.

When I was growing up, I was told that because I was a Christian, I wouldn't be afraid to die. I would live forever and that knowledge would give me "peace and comfort." It was a message drilled into me from the day I was born.

Oh yeah, by the way, ummm, if I didn't believe, I would be tortured forever and ever.

Unlike some of my family and friends, I decided by my early twenties that there is as much peace and love in that message as there is in a wife beater telling his bloody spouse that he loves her but she just needs to be obedient. 

Blood
My sink on Tuesday before the ambulance arrived. This type of thing has slowed down my gongfu for about 6 years, but we keep moving forward.

Thanks to my study of philosophical Taoism and Zen Buddhism, and as I developed critical thinking skills that were considered evil in my church (question and doubt is caused by Satan), my philosophy of life and death changed and evolved. The truth became very clear -- I spent an eternity before I existed and will spend another eternity after I exist.

I had no complaints when I arrived and I will have no complaints after I leave. It was total peace before and it will be total peace afterwards. Anything else is just a bit silly, don't you think?

It would be nice to spend eternity with Nancy, although it's hard enough spending ONE lifetime with a girl, not to mention eternity, but I've known her long enough to understand that she is probably going to Hell anyway, heh heh. I have to admit I'm not the best influence.

And so I am focusing on getting back to normal, returning to practice I'm hoping by the end of the week (in fact, I might do some silk-reeling exercises in my room when I finish this post), and by yesterday they took me off oxygen. I took such a dramatic turn for the better that the nurse came in last night after not seeing me since seven in the morning and her jaw dropped because I was sitting in the chair breathing room air. She couldn't believe it.

They consider me their easiest patient. I keep things light-hearted.

I think you must live your philosophy. You must live what you believe. My philosophy enables me to laugh, joke with doctors and nurses, love, be determined, and adopt the eye of the tiger. I am not going down easy, and I still plan to attend a tournament this October and perform a Xingyi or Taiji form in competition. My major goal for my website this spring is to reshoot all my Laojia Yilu instruction and also turn it into a DVD.

I have been close to death, and it is pretty clear that when the time comes, I will probably greet it with a smile, and hopefully with an "I love you" to my wife and family. But that time is not going to come very quickly if I have anything to do with it.

I have no room for fear, and it is not something that my philosophy offers. No decent belief system makes you afraid. "Fear of God" is one of the most insidious things we allow religious leaders to put into our minds. We allow them to do it. They want us to be afraid. It's a control thing. They know that if they teach us this fear as children, most of us will hold onto it all of our lives and never question it. As adults, we have the power to reject their message, but it takes a lot of internal strength to choose a new path. Most of us simply accept it. Not me.

There are no threats involved in life or death. Good things happen and bad things happen. Get used to it, because the older you get, you cannot avoid the bad things. They are part of life.

Studying the martial arts -- any style -- should help you find inner peace. So should your religion or philosophy. Fear of dying is not something a true warrior or philosopher should have, or a true Christian or Hindu or anyone.

And so, the intelligent thinker is not afraid to do a philosophical audit from time to time. Is my belief system working for me? Why not? You just might find there is another way of thinking that will work. I did, and I know several who did.

Some Christians are not afraid, so their beliefs are working for them. Often, they are more moderate in their beliefs about concepts such as eternal punishment. I also know some who never questioned what they were taught as children and still live with threats and fear. I was told recently that one of my cousins, who I love dearly, is convinced I will spend eternity being tortured. I can't help feeling sorry for someone with that view. They will never know real peace.

One devout Christian whose daughter got cancer told me she thought she might go crazy. I wondered, where is the comfort in your belief system? Where is the peace that passeth understanding? I have it in my philosophy. Why don't you?

That is no way to live.

Yesterday, a young physician's assistant for my pulmonologist checked in on me. She asked if I had any questions. I said yes, I do have a question.

"When I leave here, will I be able to play the piano?" I asked.

"Yes, you should be able to do that," she replied.

"That's strange," I laughed. "I couldn't play the piano when I got here."

Nancy hit me but she laughed anyway. The physician's assistant had never heard that old joke. It took her a minute, but she laughed, too.

You see? No room for fear, but there is always room for humor. I got a little teary-eyed when Nancy left for the evening, but they were not tears that came out of fear. There is always room for love. 

Every moment is precious. Don't waste it in fear. 

And now, I will stand in my hospital room and do some slow silk-reeling exercises, looking for the perfection that we all seek and often remains just out of our grasp. 


Talking Taoism with Bill Helm -- the Internal Fighting Arts Podcast Interview

Podcast LogoThe principles of Taoism have been important to me since I began exploring a world outside of Christianity beginning around age 20. I was raised in a Christian home, very similar to the Southern Baptist tradition (in fact, we were Baptists for the first seven years of my life). When I attained an age where I could begin to think for myself, I became aware of Eastern philosophy, and as I read the Tao Te Ching, the Tao of Jeet Kune Do, and Zen Buddhism, by Christmas Humphries, this wonderful way of looking at the world resonated with me.

The teachings of Taoism have enabled me to maintain or regain my center during the ups and downs of life. I have learned to observe the world without negative supernatural spin, to appreciate and seek my connection with all things, and it has helped me in countless ways, both personally and professionally.

That's why I was glad to have Bill Helm as my guest this week on the Internal Fighting Arts podcast. Bill is the Director of the Taoist Sanctuary, which he runs with his wife Allison in San Diego. He is an ordained Taoist priest, and he teaches Taijiquan, Qigong, Tuina Chinese Bodywork, and Herbal Medicine.

Bill and Allison are disciples of Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang.

Bill studied Traditional Chinese Medicine at the Shanghai College of Medicine and the Beijing Olympic Training Center, and in the United States he studed with Taoist Master Share K. Lew and Dr. Yu Da Fang. Bill is also the Chair of the Massage and Bodywork Program at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine.

I enjoyed this down-to-earth conversation with a man who approaches Taoism and the internal arts in an interesting and unexpected way. If you find yourself in the San Diego area, check out the Taoist Sanctuary for classes in meditation, Qigong, and Taiji.

In the meantime, enjoy this podcast.

Listen to or Download from Audello by clicking this link.

Go to the Internal Fighting Arts page on iTunes. 


How to Use Tai Chi for Meditation - Mindfulness in Motion

Mindfulness-WaterTai Chi is a martial art, but in the past hundred or so years, the image of Tai Chi has become linked to the concept of "moving meditation," geared toward adults and seniors who want a relaxed way to exercise and improve their health, balance, flexibility, etc.

Those of us who see Tai Chi as a vigorous, athletic martial art are sometimes at odds with those who preach the art as something that will make you "One with the Universe" or will help you "cultivate chi."

I am a chi skeptic. I do not think chi is a scientific reality. After all these centuries, after scientific discoveries that include atoms and quarks and relativity, no one has ever been able to prove that chi is real.

But recently, interviews I have done for my Internal Fighting Arts podcast, and studying I have done on Mindfulness, made me realize there is a happy medium where focusing on the proper body mechanics when performing a Tai Chi form -- the body mechanics that make it martial -- can be combined with Mindfulness to produce the benefits of meditation.

A few months ago, I had a negative encounter with someone (I no longer remember who it was or what the disagreement was about) and I was troubled and had an unsettled feeling all morning. I drove to practice with some students, my mind scattered by the negative emotions of the disagreement.

When I began practicing, I focused on my movements and my teaching, and was mentally present the entire 90-minute practice. I gave no thought to outside events. I was mindful and immersed in my internal arts.

After practice was over, I was walking to the car and realized how good I felt, how clear my mind was, and it dawned on me how much more unsettled and stressed I felt before I focused my mind and let the other thoughts go.

Dr. Mark Muesse teaches Mindfulness and was a guest on my podcast a few weeks ago (listen to or download the Mindfulness episode here). Mindfulness is a form of meditation where you put your mind completely on what you are doing, and in doing so -- in being mindful -- your mind and body experience the health benefits of meditation. 

A lack of mindfulness causes a lot of distress, whether it is a feeling your spouse gets when you just don't seem to be paying attention, or if you are constantly sending and receiving messages on your cell phone or computer, or if you are in a meeting at work, allowing your mind to wander rather than focusing on what is being said. All of these things and more scatter your energy and produce stress.

By focusing the mind and being here now, in the moment, time goes faster and you gain clarity. Stress levels drop, your anxiety and stress ease, and your body is more calm. Your health improves. Clinical studies have confirmed this.

Dr. Muesse and some Tai Chi instructors I have talked with agree that the best way to use Tai Chi for meditation could simply be a matter of focusing your mind as you do your form. If you practice as I do, working on martial body mechanics as you do your form, that will be just as beneficial as focusing on "cultivating chi" from a meditation perspective as long as I am in the moment, concentrating on my movement, without a dozen other thoughts going through my mind. 

And so it makes logical sense that if you practice Tai Chi to "cultivate chi," and you focus your mind on that and practice mindfully, it will also have health benefits that you may attribute (inaccurately) to chi, when in fact it is the psychological and physical benefit of Mindfulness.

Try it the next time you practice any martial art. Calm your mind and try to "be here now." Don't worry about what you are having for dinner tonight, what bills need to be paid, what deadlines you have at work, or what tension there may be in some of your relationships.

Simply pay attention to what you are doing, without judging, and if you find your mind wandering, don't be critical of yourself, simply steer it back to focus on what you are doing. At the end of your practice, you might feel mentally refreshed and relaxed, and what can be healthier than that?


Being Here Now - Using Mindfulness in Practicing Tai Chi, Hsing-I, Bagua, and Qigong

Mindfulness-WaterThere is a good chance that while you are reading this sentence, you have several other things on your mind.

Perhaps you are reading while at work, sneaking a quick peek between (or during) tasks. Perhaps you are also listening to music while you read, or watching TV.

If you are like me, you feel that your mind is more scattered than ever, constantly bombarded with information, texts, emails, and other media. When you are in a meeting your mind wanders and you are bored stiff. When your wife begins telling you about her day at work, your mind is everywhere but focused on what she is saying.

When something happens to us we instantly judge it. The foot of snow that fell on my home Sunday sucks! The person who put that up on Facebook is a moron! I'm really sick of this nagging lower back pain! And I hope all the players on the Duke basketball team rot in Hell. Okay, that's a little over the top, but I am a Lexington native and a true-blue Kentucky fan. Umm, I guess I am scattering my thoughts now. Back on track!

Mindlessness -- scattered attention and judgmental reaction -- saps us of focus, creativity, and productivity. It damages our relationships at work and at home. There is a reason why we don't accomplish as much as we used to or achieve the same intimacy as we did 30 years ago -- our attention is hijacked every few minutes by the need to check an email, a text, an app, or by the normal interruptions of the average day.

It's no wonder stress is killing us. But there is an answer, and it is the topic of this week's Internal Fighting Arts podcast. I interview Mark W. Muesse, Ph.D. and a professor at Rhodes College in Memphis. He is also the instructor of a brilliant course offered by The Teaching Company. The course is "Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation." Nancy and I bought the course and he was kind enough to grant a request to discuss Mindfulness on my program.

Click this link to listen or download the podcast from Audello.

Click this link to listen to, download, or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

A lot of people practice the internal arts for "meditation." But you don't need to imagine invisible energy or believe in pseudoscience to get the mental and health benefits from these arts. All you have to do is be mindful. Pay attention. Focus. Be here now, in this moment, and give it your full attention. There are real benefits to Mindfulness.

I think you will enjoy this podcast and can use the information not only in your practice, but also in....Go Wildcats!!.....I mean, also in your daily life.


A Christmas Tree on a Baby's Grave and a Beautiful Day

Baby TreeWhat a beautiful, sunny day it is today! It seems as if the sun has been hibernating behind the clouds for the past two or three weeks, but today, a few days after Christmas, it must have decided to get a little more shining done before the year is over.

It was such a nice day, despite being 28 degrees, Nancy and I took our little dog Minnie for a walk, and we headed down the street to a large, peaceful cemetery with a network of paved roads that serve as a walking path for the neighborhood.

At one point, Nancy noticed a small Christmas tree, about two or three feet tall, that someone had planted in the ground about 15 feet from the path. It was an unusual sight, so I walked across the grass to have a closer look.

The little Christmas tree had been put up next to the grave of a baby who had died just a few years ago.

I read the name on the stone and walked away, but a flood of emotion made me turn and go back, realizing the pain and the love the parents were trying to express during a season when a child should be alive and filled with joy and wonder. How difficult it must have been to place that tree next to their baby boy who would have been eight years old this Christmas.

It is a pain that is all too familiar. 

Thirty four years ago, I was surviving my first Christmas after losing a daughter. Shara died of crib death at six weeks old -- suddenly, in the night with no warning. The night before she died, as I was talking to her and trying to get her to smile, she grinned a huge, toothless grin that caused me, her mom and her sister to burst out laughing. It was the first and last time I would see her smile.

The devastation was total. We were stunned and heartbroken through the funeral, as our family and friends tried to offer hopeful words of support.

The day after the funeral, after a series of cloudy, wet days, which I considered appropriate when my little girl had died, I was driving down Georgetown Road near Lexington, deep in despair, when the sun poked out from behind the clouds and the sky became a glorious blue.

What a beautiful day, I thought. And in that moment of enlightenment, the day after burying my baby girl, I knew that I could handle anything that life threw at me. Life is an amazing, horrible, wonderful, exciting, devastating, hilarious and painful journey. The only reasonable thing to do is to live it, experience it, and try to ride the ups and downs while enjoying all that you can. I decided to walk on.

This is perhaps the greatest gift I have received from the study of the internal martial arts and the philosophy upon which they are based. Mindfulness, and the ability to remain centered in times of crisis are two benefits that have changed my life in many ways. Like anyone living in the modern world, I sometimes fall short of my ideals, and I step off the path from time to time, but sometimes I feel as if, through thinking about the lessons of philosophical Taoism and Zen Buddhism and working on skill in these arts have helped build an internal gyroscope that keeps me from staying down very long after the inevitable cloudy days and storms of life do their damage.

And that is the key. We all get knocked down at some point. The question is, how long do we stay down?

A year ago, I visited my cardiologist, and he gave me the results of an echocardiogram. I had been living in heart failure. My "ejection fraction" was around 30 percent. I could drop dead, he said, at any time.

Many of you know, if you have been reading this blog for years, that I nearly died in 2009 after experiencing freak side effects from a procedure for a-fib and I lost the function of my left lung. A couple of doctors, including one at Mayo Clinic, gave me three to five years before my heart gave out. One gave me 10 years.

This was not pleasant news, considering that Nancy and I just met in 2002. I am not in a hurry to leave her just yet, and I would love to see my grandchildren grow up. There is also a lot left to learn in Taiji, Xingyi, and Bagua.

When my cardiologist told me last year that my heart had, in fact weakened during the last few years, I was surprised, but it made sense because I had felt a lot of strange thumpings in my chest during the past couple of years, including thumps that turned into dizzy spells.

After he told me this, I went home and for a few days I constantly wondered if this was my last moment. Walking down the hall in our house, looking at photos of Nancy and our family, I would think, "Is this the last thing I'm going to see?"

Then I realized that if I suddenly keeled over, I would be the last to know. So I stopped worrying about it and continued to practice kung-fu and enjoy life. I decided to walk on.

A few months later, my heart climbed out of heart failure, boosted by a higher dose of medicine. How long it will stay at the "low end of normal" is anyone's guess. It could begin to weaken again soon, or I could be trying to get better at kung-fu for years to come. I try not to worry about it. There is too much to enjoy.

Today, as I saw that tiny Christmas tree next to the baby's grave, my heart filled with pain for the parents who are no doubt in the same place I was all those years ago, trying desperately to survive and pull myself out of an unexpected tragedy. It took years to recover, and it is a pain that never quite vanishes completely. I hope they are doing okay.

I took a photo of the tree and the grave, returned to the path where Nancy and Minnie were waiting for me, and couldn't help but look up and express a little joy at the beautiful blue sky and the bright, sunny day. And then we walked on.