Archive for June, 2011|Monthly archive page

The Story of Ruth: Ordinary Grace

Among all the stories told in the Old Testament, the story of Ruth is fairly unique in that God doesn’t directly speak or act in anything that happens. His presence is assumed rather than explicit. I really appreciate this, because it makes this story feel so much like real life, the kind of life where people just muddle through and make decisions and take action, and things either happen or fail to happen, and then the next decision has to be made in light of that. That’s what my life feels like, most of the time. I have never experienced the blessing (or terror) of having God open the heavens and speak to me audibly, giving me explicit instructions about what to do. But many, many times I have experienced things by apparent chance, and only when I look backwards over them can I see how everything fit together for my good.

So much of Ruth and Naomi’s story is like that. They make decisions in response to serious hardships in their lives, and their path is shaped by those choices, bit by bit. There are great acts of heroism and kindness, but not in any flashy superhero kind of way. Ruth takes a lot of risks, but not for the sake of adventure. She does it because she has to, because it’s how her life is shaped, because it’s who she is. That’s how real heroism works. That’s how the world is really shaped, day by day.

Ruth’s story gives me a lot of encouragement for my own day-by-day life and the ordinary choices that I make inside it. Some of those choices are actually big, hairy decisions, but they’re the kind of big, hairy decisions everyone has to wrestle with: how to make a living, how to meet your needs, how to take care of the people who are important to you. Most of the story is about how two women are set adrift from what enables them to do that, and how they have to find a new way to a place of provision and security.

It’s also about the quieter, more subtle and ongoing work of God — not the epic moments when he sends angels with thundering messages of doom and glory, but the ways in which he constantly nudges very ordinary things into place. Ruth’s story reminds me that God is here, whether or not he’s visible, whether or not he speaks out loud. He’s here in the words I’m writing, the thoughts I’m thinking, in both the little choices and the big hairy decisions I need to make next. God is right here, quietly shaping everything for good.

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The Essential Energies: Cloth

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately studying the taiji “silk-reeling exercises,” a Chen-style set of movements that are named after the process of reeling silk, harvesting silk fiber from silkworm cocoons.  The idea of reeling silk describes the quality of motion to pursue in the exercises: smooth, circular, continuous, no jerks or breaks, not too fast or slow.

Taiji training is full of metaphors seeking to describe the characteristics of the right kind of motion.  Reeling silk.  Water, in many forms — water flowing in a river, water in a lake, water seeking equilibrium, water parting around an obstacle and reforming on the other side, water that gently but relentlessly follows its own path.  The idea of manipulating a ball, and the forces at work within an inflated ball.  These are just a start.  All of them have something useful to say about the ideas and practicalities of taiji movement, but they are nonetheless metaphorical.  They are slanty-wise descriptors, pointing in the direction of the truth without saying it explicitly.

There’s a very good reason for this.  So much of taiji is internal; the external form is more a result than a cause, the end expression of something that happens within the body, out of sight.  It relies on sensing and feeling things that cannot easily be seen — which makes it less-than-straightforward to teach.  An instructor can demonstrate a set of movements clearly and correctly, with great personal clarity about the internal forces and energies at play, and yet a classful of inexperienced students can still miss the point entirely.  The instructor can’t transfer their own internal senses into the student, so the student can experience what the movements are “supposed” to feel like.  An instructor can demonstrate correct external form and can help fix their students’ external forms, but the internal energies and forces are so much harder to convey — and it’s the internal energies that bring taiji to life, that make it what it is.

So I was working on the silk-reeling exercises, pondering the metaphor of reeling silk and the idea of qi (pronounced “chee”), the body’s internal energy that animates taiji and other martial arts, and wondering once again what on earth it feels like, how you find it and nurture it.  I know the body is full of energy, full of the motion of blood rushing and breath blowing, tiny cellular tides and electrical signals zipping along nerve highways — all of the processes that make up a human body.  I know all of that stuff is in there happening, all the time, but other than the process of breathing you can’t really manipulate it consciously.  Qi must need all of that, because without it the body can’t live and function as a body, but that can’t be the whole idea.

I focused my attention on feeling the motion of the single arm silk-reeling exercise, trying to remember everything I’ve been taught about doing the form properly.  Push with the feet, direct the motion with the waist, let the movement be expressed through the arms and hands.  Sit back into the stance, pelvis straight, posture straight and relaxed.  Turn the waist.  Relax the arm, let it be moved by the rest of the body, don’t muscle it along.  Relax.  Let the arm follow the movement.  Connect the energy, the whole way from the foot pushing off the ground up through the body and out through the arm, one connected motion, one connected energy, moving like … moving like …

Then it came to me.  Moving like cloth.  That’s when everything changed.

The image flashed in my head; making a bed, spreading out fresh sheets.  I always wrangle a flat sheet into place by snapping it out, giving it a good hard flick from the bottom edge in order to flip it roughly into place.  I’m familiar with that feeling — lifting the edge of the sheet and bringing it sharply down, sending a ripple of energy the whole way through the sheet to flick off the other end — and suddenly that same ripple of motion was there inside my body, from my left foot pushing off the ground, through a straightening leg, a turning waist, uncoiling my arm, running smoothly the whole way through my wrist and hand and rolling off my fingertips.  In the same way I feel energy run through a sheet, I could suddenly feel it running through myself.  Energy.  Qi.

I’m under no illusion that I suddenly know everything there is to know about qi, but in finding my own metaphor, I feel I’ve taken a big step toward deeper understanding.  The silk-reeling movement instantly smoothed out, became more connected and even; when I look for the same feeling in other movements, I can feel them doing the same.  I’m starting to sense how the energy of individual movements connect into one long, seamless motion in my forms practice.  I’m noticing places that still need work by the absence of fluidity, the clunkiness of motions which lack that feeling of connection and flow.  In some ways, learning this one new thing just shows me how little I really know. But it also makes me hungry to learn more.

Jumping jacks

Time management is not my best skill right now.  There’s so much I want to do, and I fritter away so much time, and get nowhere.

Today wasn’t bad, but I slept in later than intended, and later on was rushing a little to get to my class this afternoon because I misjudged my time again, and by this evening I had managed to do a little writing, make supper and clean up the relevant dishes, but I realized too late that I hadn’t gone for a walk.  I enjoy walking after I start, and I want to keep doing it to get in better shape, but today it slipped my mind until it was nearly dark outside and I lost my chance.

I thought about my friend Michael, he of the Tiger Force, and how he fits in his workouts.  Often he mentions that time is tight, but he makes a point of working exercise into his day, a couple of minutes here, a couple more minutes there.  At the end of the day he totals everything up and posts it to the group, and is making great progress.  I thought about that, with the sun almost down, and me with no time left to walk outdoors.

My involvement with the Tiger Force group has introduced me to the names of many unfamiliar exercises, things that I haven’t the first clue what they are or how to do them.  Squats, lifts, presses, curls, flys, dips, v-ups, “supermans” … the other day someone listed “perfect” pushups in their workout, as if ordinary pushups aren’t bad enough!  I don’t think I can do any sort of pushup right now, not even the most imperfect kind.  The other reason I choose walking for fitness, besides the fact that I enjoy it, is at least I know how to do it.

So walking for today was out, and I don’t really know how to do any of the other squat-curl-thrust-press-superman-perfect-flying-dip-lift nonsense.  So what kind of options did I have left?

I decided on jumping jacks.  I’m a complete idiot at working out, but at least I know how to do a blasted jumping jack.

(If anyone ever tries to suggest to me that there’s a “perfect” version of a jumping jack, I am going to poke them in the eye, and I won’t even feel a little bit bad about it.)

I started out with twenty.  Twenty felt about right.  I still had to deal with some laundry and house chores, so the wet laundry went in the dryer, the dry stuff went upstairs to get folded and put away.  Hmm, stairs, I thought to myself.  Stairs are good exercise too.  Bonus for the stairs.

Towels got folded and put away, and I did another set of jumping jacks.  Socks and unmentionables; another set of jumping jacks.  I pottered around cleaning in the bathroom and did another set, and then went back downstairs and fetched up more clothes to put away (more stairs).  I thought about it some more, and decided to give myself credit for some incidental walking today too — walking around the kitchen to prepare and cook dinner, walking down the hill to pitch trash in the dumpster, walking around after laundry bags and baskets and back and forth to the machines, amid everything else I was doing.  It’s walking; it counts for something.  I would never have thought of it that way though, if I hadn’t decided that I was going to make a specific effort to be active today.

While the dryer finished up I worked on some taiji, silk-reeling exercises and forms practice.  I feel like I made some significant progress this week, and so taiji is really fun right now, exploring new ideas and feeling the movements begin to connect.  I did some more jumping jacks, and eventually sat down to write.  I’ll have one more trip up the stairs, with laundry, on the way to bed.  So my final fitness total for the day:

Walking several hundred steps, while doing chores;
Five up-and-down repetitions of the stairs (plus more earlier in the day);
A half hour of taiji silk-reeling and forms practice;
And 160 jumping jacks.

The Essential Energies: Peng

For more context about the essential energies, start with this introductory post.

The first of the essential energies in taiji is named peng, a Chinese word which is misleading to English speakers.  The sound of it is closer to “pung” then “peng,” or maybe like the second word in “ping pong.”  Without this energy, I don’t think any of the others work as they should.

All of the energies have been explained to me using the metaphor of an inflated rubber ball, which captures the idea very well.  Peng is the force inside an inflated ball that keeps it inflated, that presses out equally in every direction.  It is an energy of fullness, of expansion.

Peng gives a ball resilience.  If you push on a rubber ball, it pushes back; if you push harder, it pushes back harder, it resists being squashed.  It resists you with exactly the same force you use to push on it.  It is pressed inward in one spot, but the rest of the the ball expands and becomes firmer.  When you let go, it returns immediately to its full, original shape.  It doesn’t chase you, doesn’t push on you at all if you lose contact with it.

The energy of peng relies on an internal fullness, but not over-fullness.  A deflated rubber ball is a flat, squidgy thing that lays on the floor and isn’t much fun to play with.  It doesn’t resist you if you push or kick it, it doesn’t spring back, it doesn’t have any kind of energy at all.  On the other hand, an over-inflated ball is too strained to use.  If you apply any kind of force to it, it pops, it stops being a ball altogether.  Peng is therefore a relaxed fullness, it is full enough — neither too much nor too little.  It is an appropriate fullness to the size of the object.

Many taiji movements rely on the idea of relaxed fullness.  Neither limp and slouchy, nor stiff and tense.  It is standing up straight, expanding the body and limbs, but in a relaxed way — to an appropriate degree and no more.  Just like inflating a ball to the right internal pressure, it is standing up to one’s own full natural stature, not a bit more or less.  Assuming this kind of posture enables one to have the same kind of resiliency as a rubber ball.  If someone pushes on you, your body pushes back.  If they stop pushing, you don’t chase them.  Part of the body flexes, accepting pressure and dispersing it, and part of the body remains firm and stable — in many cases, the force an opponent applies just makes the taiji stance more stable.

One English translation I’ve seen for peng energy is “Full,” but in my school motions which incorporate peng are often called “ward off,” which is another aspect of the energy.  In taking up its own full size and expansion, peng moves other things out of the way.  Peng is inexorable.  One example from my teacher is that of waves at the beach, the feeling of standing in the surf and having a wave come in and lift you off your feet, push you along with it — the energy in the wave is essentially peng energy.  It doesn’t ask you politely to step aside, it just moves you.  Taiji movements incorporating peng can be used in this way to move an opponent aside.  Not by forceful, strained pushing, just by standing up into one’s stature, expanding the body, assuming one’s internal sense of fullness.

So this is peng.  I’m beginning to understand it in taiji practice, but I’m also pondering it in the more universal sense, what this energy looks like through the rest of life.  Remember, taiji as a martial art is simply a physical exploration of taiji as a universal philosophy, so the idea of peng is not restricted to physical movement.

I’ve been struggling with articulating what peng looks like in the rest of life, and I think it’s because I don’t naturally express it well, or often enough.  It feels to me like a lot of the things I’ve been fighting with for a long time, especially since the beginning of this year, are because I’m not standing up into my own full stature, not assuming my full talents and abilities, not giving myself credit for everything I am and everything I am capable of.  Too often, I am like a deflated ball, lying in a sad little pile on the floor and not able to respond when I get kicked, not able to push back, not resilient, not energetic.  I don’t take up space in the world — too often I deliberately try to take up as little space as possible, hoping that I’ll be tolerated if I’m not too much of a bother.  It doesn’t occur to me that I’m not merely tolerated, that my presence is welcomed and valued.  It doesn’t occur to me that if I stood up into my full stature, physically and emotionally and spiritually and in every way, with all of my talents and skills and ideas and creativity, my capacity for and enjoyment of work, my need to help other people and make the world better — that if I stood up and claimed all of these things about myself, stood up into them fully, that I could move things — that I could do some good, and also be both more full and more relaxed inside my own life, inside my own skin.  I’m not intended to be flat and listless and fit in the cracks between other people; I’m here to be full, to take up space, to interact with the world in good ways.  To be resilient.  To be peng.

This is the bigger lesson I’m thinking about, ways in which I express this energy of fullness and fail to express it, and how I would like to be able to.  I want a fuller life; the concept of peng is showing me that it doesn’t come from what you’re given, from what is outside, but it comes first from what is inside, from being full in oneself.  I don’t think I’m there yet, but it shows me what to seek.

Therapy

Someone in my family had surgery early this year, of a kind that required physical therapy to recover from. I was talking to him yesterday about how he’s gotten to the part where he’s recovered enough strength and range of motion that most of his exercises aren’t necessary anymore, that he has been taking on more and more of his normal range of activities.

I was thinking about that last night, and wrote this in my scribbeldy notebook.

“People change when they’re forced to. I don’t know if I’ve been forced far enough into change yet.

“God is like a physical therapist right now. He has to make me work through my recovery, and it’s painful and hard and I hate it. It’s not what I want to experience. But I’m broken. I have to be healed, and I have to be stretched and worked and if God loves me, he’s going to do it. If he is a real healer, he’s going to act for healing, even when it’s hard and painful. So that someday, it won’t be hard and painful. So someday I’ll be all whole.

“God is working my spirit like a PT works the body. With great care and great intention and focus. Pushing right to the point that promotes healing, but not any farther. He is very careful about that. He needs to be, because I’m not smart enough. I have no idea what’s too little and too much. I just know it hurts and I’d rather not do it. And would end up crippled and stunted.

“A healer can’t let that happen. Not if their patient really wants to be well. Maybe God has to be stern right now, to push me through the work I need to do. And maybe the best thing I can do is stop whining and submit to it.”

162 days

I usually avoid fussing with pictures because I’m not much good at it, but I need them today.

Last night I finished turning all of this stuff, plus another bundle that’s not in the picture (same size as the ones that are):

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Into this stuff, which is generally the same thickness as a really heavy sewing thread:

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I’m a spinner, I turn loose fiber into yarn. It’s a way to use beautiful materials to make one-of-a-kind yarns, and then one-of-a-kind pieces out of those yarns; it’s also a process I just plain enjoy, which is mostly why I do it. But it does take time. Progress can feel really slow.

As near as I can tell, this project took me 162 days. I’m not entirely done, I don’t have finished yarn yet, but the remaining steps are practically negligible compared to this step, turning fiber into thin string.

I remember being excited at the beginning, as I always am when I start something new. I also remember being tired of this project a number of times, mired in the endless middle. But I kept chipping at it, and now it’s done.

162 days. Visible, tangible proof today that slow and steady progress does take you somewhere, in the end. That’s a lesson I want to sit back and absorb for a while.

While admiring my new yarn in progress, which I like a lot. I’m really pleased with this stuff.

Tiger Force

Before I started learning about taiji, the only kind of exercise I found that I really liked was walking.  I’m not big on sports, I’m not naturally coordinated enough to be good at them fast, and I haven’t enjoyed any of them enough to want to spend the time to get good at them.  But walking, now, walking I can handle.  I’ve been walking for a long time, my feet have pretty much worked out the mechanics.  I only trip on flat ground once in a great while now.

More than that, something about walking activates my brain, it helps me think, and helps me sort out my thoughts.  I have a natural inclination to think about big philosophical stuff, so an activity that ends up exercising both my body and mind is a great thing.

Several years back, when I first discovered I really like to walk, I worked my way up to walking hard for up to an hour a day, four or five times a week.  Hours a week, spent pacing off the miles and pacing out ideas and plans and stories — great, enormous stories.  It still makes me smile to think about that.

I don’t remember why I fell out of the habit of walking, but I’ve struggled ever since then to pick it back up.  I know it’s good for me, I know I really enjoy it, but I haven’t been able to ingrain the habit.

Last week I finally started walking again, with the help of a good friend and a Facebook group.  Michael Tiger is a fellow student at my martial arts school, a talented martial artist, and a strong proponent of physical fitness and pushing one’s limits.  More importantly, he is a great encourager and understands how important it is to have support in pushing oneself, that it’s so much harder to go it alone.

A couple of weeks ago Michael started a Facebook group named “Tiger Force,” with the intention of forming a space where people can post their workout results, cheer each other on, ask questions and trade ideas.  It’s been an active, successful group from the start, and it’s still growing.

It’s gotten me moving again.  I’ve been going for walks consistently since joining in, maybe not as fast or as long as I used to, but walks nonetheless.  It makes a big difference to have a space to be accountable in, to announce that I’ve gone out walking and have someone say “attagirl.”  It’s inspiring to see what other people are doing — sometimes intimidating, because there are a lot of people who are far more serious about physical fitness than I am and who are consequently in much better shape.  But I refuse to let that stop me from being involved.  I am myself, not Michael or any of the other crazy people awesome physically fit people who reel off hundreds of pushups or squats or things-I’ve-never-heard-of every day.  I refuse to feel bad about that.

It’s raining today, so I was tempted to stay home … but drat it, I’d rather get some fresh air, even if it is waterlogged.  I think I’ve got a lightweight poncho around here somewhere.  If you want me, I’ll be out on the road.  Putting one foot in front of the other.

Thanks, Michael.

Tiger Force is an open Facebook group.  If you’d like to be part of a great, welcoming, encouraging group of people who are all working on taking care of their bodies, we’d love to have you.

The Essential Energies

Yesterday evening my taiji forms class focused primarily on the “essential energies” of taiji movement. As I understand them so far, these are kinds of energy or power that most, maybe all, of taiji practice are built on. Every movement includes at least one of the essential energies, sometimes more.

As a fairly new student of taiji, I’m also fairly new to these concepts. I’m trying to absorb them to deepen my understanding and practice of taiji, but there’s more to them as well. Taiji itself is a physical art based on a much larger philosophy, the principles of which may be extended into every corner of life. The movements and forces of taiji are also metaphors for the movements and forces that interplay across life in whole. So I’m interested in understanding the essential energies in the sphere of my taiji study, and also for the bigger lessons they hold for me. (I’m always a sucker for a good life-metaphor.)

So I’m sitting down to write out some thoughts about the essential energies, and find myself almost immediately stumped. That word “energy” has a lot of possible connotations, and I’m not sure if any of the obvious ones are exactly right. Then when I add it to a martial art and end up with a name like “The Essential Energies of Taijiquan” it starts to sound like some kind of mystical woo-woo mumbo jumbo that won’t help at all to explain the real concept. A human body is a marvelous thing, but still, some things only happen in the movies.

The definition of “energy” that feels the most correct to me is that of kinetic energy, the energy of motion. “Power” and “force” are close synonyms. It is a kind of energy that can come about by intention, as in the deliberate motion of a person’s body, or by the simple mechanics of the world in motion, like water flowing downhill in obedience to the pull of gravity. Effectively understanding and using the essential energies in taiji, as I understand them, actually contains some of both ideas — intentional motion and stance of the body, informed by knowing how the body works, how it is put together, how force/power/energy naturally “wants” to move. It is the use of energy/force/power to work with reality, rather than against or in spite of it.

It reminds me of this delightful, ridiculous music video by OK Go (a band known for making delightful, ridiculous music videos) based on a huge interactive Rube Goldberg machine. There is much design and intention involved in the setup of the contraption, but all of its active workings depend on simple natural principles. Gravity, inertia, kinetic energy, friction, tension and release. The geometry of circles and spirals appears everywhere, both of which are also fundamental in taiji motion. One small but firm nudge at the beginning gives rise to a huge flurry of activity, all by understanding and working with the materials and forces at hand.

I want to learn more about taiji, and I want to learn how to live more effectively, more fully. So I’m starting to study the “essential energies” of both taiji and life, looking for the lessons they hold for me.

How to escape a funk (6/14/2011 edition)

Nine practical steps for getting out of a funk:

1. Start with some music. (Today, this white girl had to get her funk on in order to get her funk off. Musical credits for the morning’s soundtrack go to Pandora.com.)

2. Feed the body. Going hungry doesn’t do any good, even when it’s a result of simple absentmindedness.

3. Take a walk. Bonus points for doing so in glorious weather.

4. Feed the spirit with prayer and meditation.

5. Write something.

6. Be productive. Laundry and washing dishes count.

7. Do fun things. Spin beautiful fiber into yarn. Watch funny TV.

8. Spend the evening in really great taiji classes.

9. Get a writing “assignment” from martial arts teacher that provokes deep thoughtfulness for the rest of the evening. Start planning an article, and look forward to the challenge of writing it well.

The wall

There’s a blank wall in my downstairs living space, a wall that I have thought many times that I should find something to put on, but have never carried through and done it.  It’s a short wall right beside my table, where I sit to eat and write and read and do anything that requires some flat space to work.

Today, I’m putting my bare wall to use.  I’m writing down three things that are important to me, three quotations that mean a lot to me right now.  Three lessons that I am learning.  Three gifts, in the form of words.

From Eleanor Roosevelt:

You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.  You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror.  I can take the next thing that comes along.’

From the poet Kalidasa, via Dale Carnegie:

Salutation to the Dawn

Look to this day!  For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course Lie all the verities and realities of your existence.
The bliss of growth, The glory of action, The splendor of achievement.
For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision,
But today well lived makes yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day!  Such is the salutation to the dawn.

From David the psalmist:

O God, you are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you,
my body longs for you,
in a dry and weary land
where there is no water.