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2015 Bar Harbor

We unite ourselves and divide ourselves with words. We not only define but give emotional meaning to things with words, and you often can tell the importance of something by how many words there are for it in a language, a classic example being the number of Inuit words for snow.

Political correctness often comes up in the discussion of the evolving of our language and how we frame our culture. The discussion is often disingenuous, for the same philosophical group that disparages the move to change the name of the Washington professional football team name as political correctness gone overboard forced the Cincinnati professional baseball team to change its name to Redlegs for a time in the 1950s so they wouldn’t sound communist. That was also the time that the US national motto was changed from “E Pluribus Unum” (“Out of the many, one” – an inclusive unifying phrase) to “In God We Trust” in an effort to prove we were not and to divide us from “godless communists.” This was done despite the constitutional separation of church and state. In Virginia, Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom had major supporters in the Baptists who did not want to pay taxes to support the official government religion of the Church of England. Those who most speak out against Sharia law ironically want to force their own brand of Christianity (and there are many brands and denominations) on others. They are doing exactly what they say they oppose, but it is okay because it is their brand. To oppose it is to be politically correct in a “bad” way. Those thoughts are further stirred up by talk radio and the disinfotainment branches of cable TV news and propaganda sources that masquerade as news.

One of the Founding Fathers of the US was a physician named Benjamin Rush. One of the things he is remembered for is declaring that addiction to alcohol is a disease. There has been an ongoing debate about whether addictions and other issues of behavior are diseases or not. The labels have changed over the years, and what is and is not a disease or a disorder has changed over time as well. Trying to decide what to call people we see as having these problems changes, too. Do you say, he is an addict? Or do you say he is a person with an addiction? Do you say he is a schizophrenic? Or do you say, he is a person with schizophrenia? Does it matter? Is it all just political correctness? Take a deep breath for a moment, and think. What do you call a person with cancer? Do you call them a cancer patient, a person with cancer? No one that I know of calls them a cancerite or some other word that implies that they are the disease. Now there are conditions like diabetes and hemophilia that do have words for a person with the condition. Do you feel a different emotional reaction to the words “alcoholic” and “schizophrenic” than you do to “diabetic” and “hemophiliac”? Would you feel differently towards someone called a cancer patient or a cardiac patient than you would schizophrenics and diabetics? Would that feeling change according to how you think they became ill? Did it just happen, or did they bring it on themselves by smoking or diet, or was it some environmental contaminant beyond their control? Does that change how you feel?

Our language shows in a very strong way how we determine and express our values. In a diverse culture, there are different values and different linguistic ways of expressing those values. One can rigidly hide behind lazy shortcuts like “political correctness” and somehow feel smugly superior when belittling something as politically correct. Or one can look more deeply at the language and try to see what values that language expresses. One thing working with families has taught me over the years is that families function better when the members treat each other with respect and compassion. Language and the values that language expresses and teaches can help a culture function more positively when it has compassion and respect as fundamental parts of its foundation. Remember the principles of taiji – softness overcomes hardness, and flexibility overcomes rigidity. In the West, another way of expressing that is that a soft answer turns away anger. The emotions of language are contagious for better or for worse.

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I’ve learned over the years that sometimes the more enthusiasm someone expresses for something, the more likely they are to lose that enthusiasm when they get what it is they wanted. It reminds me of a dog chasing a car, catching it, and discovering that they really can’t drive the thing so what was all that fuss about.

I have seen it in taijiquan over the years, both with my teacher and with me. People say they have wanted for a long time to learn taijiquan and are eager to get going. But maybe they show up and if they do, maybe they last one or two lessons. I think there is good reason that a Chinese teacher may tell would-be students they have to show up to check in everyday for months before they will even consider taking on a person as a student. In counseling, people decide they want to change and discover change can be very difficult and takes energy, and they lose desire. Thermodynamics applies to behavior, too. Behaviors in motion tend to continue and those not happening tend to stay that way – unless a force acts upon them. When that force has to be you over time, procrastination and the status quo can be very attractive. I think of someone I knew long ago who constantly talked about a dream vacation. She went on and on about it but time went by, and that vacation never happened. The idea of something often is more desirable than the thing itself. The examples are almost endless.

There is something to that cliché that it’s the journey, not the destination. The journey can become monotonous. It’s like a Louis CK punch line – the guy spends so much time out in the yard by himself because he is just running out the clock. And telling your goal to others so you can liven up the journey makes you less likely to actually accomplish that goal. Derek Sivers explains why.

It makes me wonder a bit about treatment planning in therapy. Make the goals specific, measurable, and positive (“I will do something” versus “I will not do something” which activates that part of your brain associated with what you don’t want to do making you more likely to do it guaranteeing failure). There is an online program to help you accomplish a goal that has been around for a number of years at https://www.stickk.com/. They make it interesting by having you put your money on the outcome. Achieve your goal and an organization you support will get your donation. Don’t achieve it and an organization you don’t like gets your money. You have a referee ensuring the integrity of the outcome, and you can form a support network.

The transtheoretical model of change helps. Realize that change may not continue upwards in a straight line. People start and stop. They have set backs; they recover. Sometimes they take a break.  It may take many starts to finally continue something. And realize that the destination is not the end point. A good example is that sense of loss after completing a marathon or a degree or some other big goal. What next? Keep on the journey. Don’t retire in place. Keep moving. Daydreams are nice, but are not a place to live like Walter Mitty – unless perhaps you are just running out the clock. Life is ongoing change. Adapt and learn and be open to what comes next. But maybe don’t get overly enthusiastic about it. Remember the middle way and wu wei. Wu wei, similar to flow in western psychology, is that paradoxical Chinese concept of effortless effort or not trying. Don’t try so hard. You just make things more difficult for yourself. Relax and flow into it.

Santa Fe 2009 298Many of the people I work with in both taijiquan and counseling have chronic pain. According to the National Health Interview Survey done by the CDC , about 25 million Americans suffer daily pain and about 54 million Americans have chronic pain. In working with pain, I use a combination of movement and mindfulness. Taijiquan and qigong can work wonders for pain relief. Each is a gentle way to get moving again and a way to attain balance in all parts of life.

There are several books I suggest to folks. First are the works of Toni Bernhard. You can read more about her at http://tonibernhard.com/. She addresses pain management from a Buddhist perspective. She has written several books on the topic and about her own coping with chronic pain. Another book is “The Pain Antidote: The Proven Program to Help You Stop Suffering from Chronic Pain, Avoid Addiction to Painkillers and Reclaim Your Life”, by Mel Pohl, MD and Katherine Ketcham. You can find out more about it at http://www.thepainantidotebook.com/index.html. Pohl helps people get off opiates and develop alternate and more effective ways of coping with pain.

Taiji and qigong work with pain by changing your relationship with gravity, changing the way you breathe, and calming your mind and body. A principle of taiji is that you only expend the energy and engage the muscles for whatever it is you are doing at that moment. Everything else is relaxed but ready. Your joints are never locked. Your spine is upright and your head rests in balance on your shoulders. If you had a plumb bob attached to the center of the top of your head and it ran down the center of your body, that plumb bob would always touch the floor somewhere between your feet as you move. Standing at rest, it would be equidistant between your ankles. Your shoulders are relaxed – neither tucked forward nor pulled back. When you change your relationship with gravity and are balanced, there is less pain because you are not tilted forward or back putting a lot of work on your neck, shoulders, and back. You also carry your body differently according to mood. Being in balance and harmony with gravity can also balance your mood.

Breathing to your diaphragm also reduces stress which can reduce pain. There is an emotional component to pain. Calming the emotions can help reduce the pain. Abdominal breathing slows the heartbeat, reduces blood pressure and blood sugar, lowers stress hormones in the blood, changes the blood flow in the body, improves digestion, and even changes your vision. You are going from fight-flee-freeze-faint mode to rest and digest mode. This is a guide to finding balance in a standing meditation.

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You can read more about the principles of taijiquan and qigong here.

You can also change your relationship with pain by changing the emotional relationship with it. Rather than fighting it, have a conversation with it. What is it trying to tell you? How does it feel? Is it hot, cold, throbbing, a dull ache? Notice it, be with it. Change your self talk with pain to change that relationship, too. Pain is not a bad thing, it is there to tell us something is wrong. Sometimes the harder we try to make it go away, the harder it works to be heard. Changing self talk can help with that as well. You change your relationship with pain.

 

Another option is humor. In 1979, Norman Cousins wrote a book called, “Anatomy of an Illness As Perceived by the Patient – Reflections on Healing and Regeneration.” I came across it back when it was published in 1979. My dad was in an intensive care unit for most of two years during that time. Cousins found that a component of his healing was humor and included things like watching Candid Camera and Marx Brothers movies. Laughter changes the hormones in your body and can bring on pain relief. Even just a smile can begin to bring calm and start to lessen pain. When people have found that support groups sometimes unhelpfully come down to contests of who hurts the most, humor can erupt to help with coping, especially in the form of Monty Python. Just the thought of the Yorkshire men can bring on a smile.

 

 

 

2015 May 16 to 23 Bar Harbor 052

Root to the earth and rise to the sky like a tall straight tree.

It is difficult to feel centered sometimes. We are scattered by all sorts of distractions – perseverating thoughts, loud noises, flickering lights, and most often these days from electronic devices like phones and tablets. There seem to be multiple things at any given moment getting us scattered mentally and emotionally, and also physically. Pay attention to your body when you are feeling scattered. Are you grounded and relaxed and in harmony with gravity? Or are you tense, stiff, tilted forward or to one side with gravity pulling you down.

 

Our bodies and minds are one and when you are scattered in one, the other is out of balance as well. In taijiquan and qigong, your center is your lower dantien. That is the energy center about three finger widths below your belly button and three finger widths inside your body. Essentially, it is your center of gravity, and we move around and breathe from that center. I sometimes say in taijiquan class that life is a struggle in finding balance with gravity. It is always there. Astronaut Scott Kelly was two inches taller after spending about a year in space. Gravity compressed his body back that two inches after his return to earth. When you are out of balance with gravity, your body pays a price. Your neck, your lower back, and your spine all struggle to keep you upright. The outcome is increased pain and an increased risk of falling.

When you are out of balance, you also do not breathe as efficiently. Beginning about age 6 or 7, our breathing tends to start moving from our belly towards our upper chest. This style of breathing is less efficient. We get less oxygen, we have to work harder to breathe and tend to breathe more quickly. This “upper chest” breathing engages your sympathetic nervous system, or your fight/flee/freeze/faint system. Your heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar and breathing rate all rise. You get tunnel vision. Your blood moves from your internal organs and brain out to your arms and legs to get you ready for action. Your ability to think and improvise goes away and you automatically “go with what you know.” Your adrenalin and cortisol levels rise and form a feedback loop between your adrenal glands and your brain that causes the levels to continue to rise. Take a moment and put one hand on your upper chest and the other hand on your abdomen just below your belly button. Now breathe like you normally breathe. Which hand moves? Are you breathing from your abdomen or your upper chest?

You can practice getting your center – finding your balance and breathing efficiently. You will move better. You will feel better. You will function more from the parasympathetic nervous system’s rest and digest way of being. You might even be more likely to use the other response to a threat – tend and befriend – when you are balanced.

This is an exercise we do at the beginning of classes to find balance with the earth and harmony with gravity.

On Friday, we had snow, then sleet, then some rain and then into Saturday it became sleet and then back to snow that lasted almost into Sunday morning. The weather forecasters had been tracking this storm for a while. It looked touch and go as to what we would get and how much and when it would start here in eastern Virginia. A manager at one of the places I work sent out one of the best cancelation emails I have ever received: “Due to the impending doom, classes are canceled tomorrow.” She is from upstate New York and has a sense of humor about snow south of the Mason-Dixon. And my work schedule put me at the particular work place just as it started to snow. She ended up canceling classes for the afternoon as well. The snow stuck to the roads pretty quickly.

Today, Sunday, is chilly and beautiful. The wind has calmed and the sky is achingly blue. When I looked up early this morning, I thought “I haven’t seen a sky that color since I was last in New Mexico.” I went out after breakfast to start shoveling the driveway. We have a fairly long and curved driveway. It is uphill all the way to the street and trees line both sides. I have to shovel the whole thing side to side so that we can get traction up the hill to get out, and so that we don’t accidentally slide into a tree or slip into the side of the house trying to traverse its aggregate length on the way back down. I decided last year that I would know when it was time to move when I get too old to shovel it.

I have a system for shoveling. I start at the top and work in angles and use gravity to help. It is the simple kind of geometry I liked back in late elementary and early high school. I still wear the galoshes I got around 6th grade complete with loafers from that time inside. My coat is a nylon jacket I got in 9th grade all those decades ago. They feel like old friends that are there for me every winter. And I wore thermal and wicking shirts I used in winter while I trained for marathons some years ago. Marathons take over your life. I just run for fun these days. It is a nice meditation time. I think I wrote most of my dissertation while running.

I walked up to the road. The only tracks in the snow were birds and squirrels and rabbits. I wondered how the little fox who used to hang out some last summer is doing. Hope he or she is okay. The first thing I noticed as I started shoveling was that the alternation of the types of precipitation resulted in snow on top of a layer of ice. Ice does not shovel very well. Hidden in the snow were lots of branches and small limbs that had come down in the wind yesterday – little barriers that could stop a blade quickly. The combination of snow and ice took me back to the snows of ’66 back home. We missed a lot of school for snow days that year, and a snow fort I built in our front yard stayed there for weeks with its ice armor over the snow walls.

I like shoveling snow. It is a kind of meditation. There is the cold, the stark clarity of the landscape, the clean scent of frozen air. There is the serenity of the quiet. Just birds and squirrels were out except for three times when people and their dogs walked by. Today was interesting. How to push snow while standing on ice. I do a lot of balance work with taijiquan and qigong. I used those principles to stay upright. Relax, sink your energy (qi) down to your center and below. Root your feet to the earth. Let energy come up through your feet and legs, direct it with your waist – silk reel – express the energy with your arms and hands. Keep the posture up, breathe to the diaphragm, move from the lower dantien. Embrace tiger, return to mountain. Flow with Dao in harmony with nature. Hard to stay mindful all the time, though, and that is okay. Memories of past snows, thoughts of internal ongoing conversations and writing projects, the occasional blasts of songs by Adele in time to movement of the shovel. Sometimes the brain was as busy as the arms and legs. If I did start to slide, I would just flow with it and stay upright and in control. Just pretended I was in a pickup hockey game with Denis Leary.

The fitbit says I walked a little over three miles. I could probably go out and do the whole thing again now. The sun has softened up the ice. But it is getting late in the day. The temperature is falling. The sun and its yang power will be back tomorrow to take the yin cold of the ice and turn it to water. Let softness, yielding, and flexibility overcome the hard and rigid – practice wu wei in the aftermath of the storm.

Last week I participated in World Taiji and Qigong Day.  As part of the program I demonstrated Yang style 24 form and Dr. Paul Lam’s Sun style Tai Chi for Arthritis.  My teacher and his teacher were also demonstrating forms.  No pressure to perform well there, eh? 

For performance of any kind, some bit of anxiety is a good thing. Too little and you do not put in the necessary effort, like a heavily favored team getting knocked off by an underdog.  Too much anxiety and you can also perform poorly. You freeze; you get tunnel vision and stop seeing options when the unexpected happens.  You need just that right level.  You are psyched up and not psyched out.

I went on third and sixth.  Rather than think about my upcoming time in front of the crowd, I watched and enjoyed the other forms being demonstrated.  Tai Chi for Arthritis was my initial performance. I was certified to teach this about seven months ago.  As I began to move I could feel myself settle in and the movements flowed. I didn’t think, I just “was.”  When my time for Yang style came around, my adrenaline had taken a little out of me and my focus was not quite as good. I have been performing Yang style for over ten years. The problem is that sometimes if your concentration lapses you can find yourself morphing into 40 form when you started out in 24. Fortunately that did not happen and my performance went well. What it did point out to me was the difference between self awareness and self consciousness. When you are self aware, you are mindful and in the moment. You know where your body is in space and flow from move to move.  It is the feeling of wu wei – effortless effort, what we call “flow” in the West. Self consciousness on the other hand, is thinking too much, trying to be aware of everything and criticizing it at the same time and maybe imagining the critique of others. You overload and performance deteriorates as you try too hard. 

 Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes habitual. I would say practice makes permanent, but nothing is permanent. You practice so that you do not have to think and can just flow in mindful self awareness, an awareness that helps you to continually improve your practice. 

Lao TzuI have been taking taiji classes for over ten years now, and practice almost every day.  I use some taiji and qi gong methods and techniques in counseling for relaxation and for learning the process of flow or wu wei (effortless effort). It has become an important part of my life, and I have learned Yang style 9, 24, and 40 form as well as Wudang 13, some fan form and am beginning to learn taiji for arthritis which is based on Sun style.

 I started teaching taiji a few months ago. If you ever want to learn an art or a skill or anything better and increase your own skills, teach it to someone else.  You really have to pay close attention to what you are doing and conceptualize it in a different.  Part of my practice is visualizing the movements.  As I explain and demonstrate the movements to a student I really have to focus on the form intensely and come up with words that describe the movement.  That also leads to some a ha moments, such as noticing how the hands and feet move together, the hips and shoulders, the elbows and knees generally move in synchronicity. A ha moments are often brought on by students’ questions and suggestions.

 Some years ago some university physics professors noticed that students were doing well on tests and could recite and use formulas, but had trouble with practical applications. It included something as simple as the classic Galileo experiment of dropping objects off the leaningTowerofPisaand objects of different sizes hit the ground at the same time. Students thought that was not the case. After all, common sense would say a cannon ball would hit the ground before a hammer when dropped from the same height, but they land in unison. The teachers eventually stopped the lectures and assigned problems to be solved to small groups of students during the class time.  The teachers moved from group to group to ask questions and help with problem solving. That is a pretty good Socratic way to teach.  The students ended up understanding concepts and principles better and were better at physics.  In a sense, they had to teach each other in a collaborative way.

 Teaching, coaching, and counseling I think work best when done in a collaborative way. And if you really want to learn something well, try teaching it.

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