Archive for May, 2012|Monthly archive page

Letting go

This morning when it came time to practice taiji, I tried again to work on a movement I’ve been fighting with for a few weeks: the “hand separation” in Fu-style liangyiquan. It starts with a sweeping backward step, and when my teacher looked at this step those few weeks ago, he said part of it is all wrong in a way I hadn’t realized at all, and I struggled hugely to understand his explanation of how it should work, and I have been struggling with it ever since.

This morning I tried it again, tried to sweep my legs and settle my feet in a way that might be correct (though at this point I can hardly tell). I felt that I failed to gain any insight or improvement, again, and I flopped myself down and burst into tears. I have been pushing away this feeling of frustration over my non-progress, making myself turn to calmness and keep working, but this morning I was done. I didn’t cry over it long, but I did cry. I hate fighting with this movement. I hate being beaten by it.

After having my cry, and then having a deep breath, I remembered something my teacher said a good while ago. I think he had it from one of his teachers, and now I have it too. When you work on something and can’t get it, it’s okay, maybe you’ll get it tomorrow. If not tomorrow, that’s okay, maybe it’ll come next year. If not next year, maybe in ten years. If not in ten years, maybe by the end of your life it will come. And if it doesn’t come by the end of your life … what does it matter? It doesn’t. Let it go.

I thought about that (which may not be exactly what my teacher said or his teacher said, but it is what came to me), and realized I have one choice, only one certain way I can stop fighting with this movement. I can let it go. I don’t mean I’ll never work on it again, or that I’ll never understand it, or that I don’t want to. But if I don’t get it, if I reach the end of my life and never understand the hand separation, what will it matter? I can think of so many things that are more important to me, that I would rather make sure I do by that time. If I never ever learn to do this well, my life will not thereby earn a failing score. It doesn’t matter. I can let go of the fight. I can let go of my need for perfection here. I can let this go.

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Ghost people

I keep catching myself having arguments in my head, arguments with people who aren’t here.  They might be connected to things I’ve heard or done in the last few days, or they might be about anything that crosses my always-moving mind.  Either way, someone I know will take the other side, in my mind, and we’ll argue about it.

It’s taken me a while to figure out the dynamic happening here.  It isn’t about the other people, not the real people; none of them ever know that I have mental arguments with them.  When I’m able to be fair, I can see that it’s not the real people — that the thing I’m arguing with isn’t acting like the real person would act.  It’s like a ghost-image of them appears and some dark part of myself animates it, and then I fight with the apparition, responding to the image without seeing the dark thing underneath.

You can never win that kind of fight by fighting with the image.  It’s all about the thing underneath.

I don’t like arguments.  I don’t like fundamental disagreement, the sort that can’t be brought around to consensus.  Sometimes adults have to agree to disagree, I know that, but I hate having to do it.  It always hurts.

Disagreement leads to separation.  I think about the ghost-people on the other side of my mental arguments and the real relationships they represent, and I feel tension and fear there.  I feel the risk of being rejected by those real people and ending up alone.  I feel like, if those arguments ever emerge into the real world, I have to be able to win them.  Because I can’t risk losing.  I can’t risk unresolved disagreement.  The dark thing underneath reminds me that I’ve experienced that kind of disagreement and loss, and how much it hurt.  It suggests that I’d better keep practicing my arguments, just in case I need them some day.

The dark thing is a liar, and there’s terrible risk in listening to it.  Because the ghost-people I fight with look like real people who I know.  If I spend too much time looking at the ghost-people, I risk forgetting who is real — I see the real faces and start to assume they are just the same as the ghost-faces, I start to ascribe the same motivations to them, I respond to them out of the hardness and fear I felt inside my mental arguments, arguments the real people had no part in and don’t know anything about.  Responding out of fear and suspicion drives people away.  If I mix up the ghost-people and the real ones, I could bring on myself the very thing I don’t want.

I’m teaching myself to spot my tendency to argue with ghost-people and cut it short, to banish the image of someone who isn’t here and go looking for what’s underneath, the harder, scarier thing to face, which is always a hurting, hateful part of myself.  The fight isn’t about winning a specious, false mental argument.  It’s to root out of myself that which is dark and fearful, to bind up and protect that which is hurt, and to try and open up a bit more to some real people, chasing out the fear of aloneness by fostering real connection and love.

Thoughts from a notebook, 5/28/2012 edition

Written in my scribbeldy notebook this morning.

… I want affection. Isn’t that what I said to G— about [an online community we belong to]? Why it hurts right now? I want affection, and I feel like I have precious little. Reading other people’s conversations where it’s present just makes me sore and resentful.

There’s the other thing I said to G— though. That maybe I just do a terrible job of letting people see what’s going on with me. How often does anyone get to see me really down? Other than pained little barbs jabbed out at the world, which are nothing more or less than requests for attention. They haven’t been working lately. I say something out of hurt and get no response. What I really want is connection, and I don’t know how to ask for it. The best I know how to do is put myself in places where other people are. But that still doesn’t really get me what I want. That’s always directed at some purposeful thing: learning taiji, making church go. Nothing personal, when I need something personal. I just really flail about how to get it.

I think I do a terrible job of letting people see what’s going on inside of me, and it helps to keep me isolated when I really badly need community and love. I really don’t know what I’m going to do about that yet.

Making myself useful

This evening I’m catching up on some sewing.  I’ve had a pile of handwoven dishtowels pinned and ready to hem for weeks, and I haven’t gotten around to it.

I’m getting around to it today because I want to give one to my mom, and one to my aunt Elaine, who saw a picture of the fabric in progress and said it was pretty.  There’s one more, which I may keep or give to someone else; not sure who, because there’s more than one candidate and I’m not sure how to pick.  (Part of the solution there is to make more towels, which is underway but takes time.)

I’ve been putting off the sewing because I don’t have a machine to help and I don’t love sewing.  I’m doing it tonight to make myself useful.  If I get these done, then some people I love get to have something new and pretty, and I think that’s a worthy pursuit.

It’s a hard thing, when stuck in the throes of feeling useless, to remember the solution is as simple as looking around for something useful and doing it.  Even if one remembers, it can be harder still to actually go through with it.  Hemming towels is a little thing, but it counts.  Little steps matter.

Not what you want

I’m not what you want
I’m not anyone
But if you needed me
I could be someone
    Caedmon’s Call, “What You Want”

This wasn’t the first song I asked my iPod to play this morning, but the iPod chose it for me soon after.  It hits me in a hard place today, by summing up a lot of what I feel and couldn’t say, until a song said it for me.

I’m not what you want.  Right now, you don’t need me.  Nobody does.

I daresay this is a place where a lot of people who read my scribblings will say HEY, WAITAMINUTE.  Simmer down, peeps.  I’m not saying nobody cares about me.  I’m saying, consider what percentage of your practical day-to-day life would be affected if I suddenly disappeared.  Before you need to fetch a calculator and do any math, I’ll give you the answer: none.  I’m not useful right now.  There are a few cases where I pitch in some volunteer time, but it’s not much, and not enough, and I’m not vital there.  It wouldn’t be a crisis if I disappeared (and I don’t intend to, but still, not a crisis).

That … really hurts, more than I think I realize most of the time, and today it’s landing really hard.  I like being useful.  I like being part of a team, getting things done, being valued and helpful.  I just don’t have it, and not much confidence at all I can find a place on a team, doing good work.

The more I think about this the weaker I feel, and the more helpless.  Such a hard place, to not be needed and not be wanted.  I’m not the only one here, I know.  Far too many people in the same situation, for a lot of reasons.

What to do about it?  I don’t know.  Today I don’t know if I have the fortitude to do anything at all, except hope for distraction.

I’m not what you want.  I’m not anyone.  But if you needed me, if someone needed me … maybe I could be someone.

About work

Some days I feel really good about life and about me. I’ve been doing so much work, hard work, in order to grow and change and get stronger and better. Sometimes I can feel that difference, I know I’m stronger and better than I used to be. Sometimes I know the hard work is worth it, and I want to keep going.

Sometimes the only thing I can think about is that I don’t have a paying job, and that’s the only work that matters in the world. Because I don’t have that, I don’t have anything worthwhile. Because I’m not working harder, impossibly hard to make a new paying gig happen, I’m useless.

Some situations and people make me feel more the first way. Some make me feel like the second. Today has been torn, waffling back and forth between. I’ve done some good personal work and some good house work and now I’m doing some writing work and I’d like to do more writing work before the day is over, but I struggle to feel like it matters. Because I don’t have work. You know, work work. The kind that everyone calls “work.” As if the rest of our lives aren’t all work too.

I’ve written so much in this space about fear and fighting with fear, and some of it seems like it’s changed, and some of it doesn’t seem to have changed at all. How deep does fear really go? Because on a lot of days I’m totally afraid to even try to find work that pays. It’s a hopeless cause. It just is. Even if it’s somehow not a hopeless cause, I’m afraid of restarting the cycle I escaped from last year — finding a stifling corporate job, like a nice padded coffin, where the days and years slip by and I get disillusioned and crazy and hate where I am but am too scared and weak to leave. I’ve lived that once, and it was once too many times. I can’t force myself to walk back in that direction. I’ve tried. I can’t do it. But I don’t know anything else.

Is there something else? Is there a possible other way, a way that actually fits me, where I can do some good in the world and not get tired and crazy? I’m not scared of hard work. I like to work hard. I like big projects and getting things done. But I have no idea how to find the chance, how to find a place to do it. I don’t know who would want me.

It doesn’t matter how much I’ve learned about being strong and not giving up. Today I can’t beat the fear. I don’t know if I will ever beat the fear and find new paying work, instead of just the rest-of-life work I have now. Today I’m just plain scared. I have no idea what to do but own that, and hope it’s not the last word.

The Essential Energies: Focus

A topic that’s come up in class recently is focus — particularly, where one should be looking while doing a movement.  The basic idea is that you look where you want the energy of your motion to go.

In the context of fighting, it’s probably a good idea to keep your eyes on  your opponent, and you probably want the energy of your movement to somehow connect with your opponent, so there’s this sensible parallel of eyes and energy.  It’s more than that, though.  Wherever the eyes are focused, energy automatically goes.  If you want your movement to be unified, your eyes need to be part of the equation.

This is a taiji idea that, so far, I’m pretty terrible at.  I have very little intentional focus; I spend so much time wondering if my body is moving correctly that I have little attention left to give my eyes.  I’m sure I’ve developed habits regarding where my eyeballs are pointed at different points in my forms, but not intentional habits intended to fit my body’s motion.

It’s bigger than that, even.  Focus matters through all of life.  It matters where you point your eyes, and it matters what you put in front of your eyes.  Wherever your focus is, energy goes.  Whatever you allow to enter your gaze affects your energy.

What do I focus on from day to day?  Goodness knows.  I have little continuity in my daily obsessions.

What do I put in front of my eyes?  I look around me, and what do I see?  Dust.  Clutter.  Unfinished projects, unpursued intentions.  Things I’ve been meaning to get to for months, even years.  What do I see, looking around my home?  What am I teaching myself about who I am, what I want, what I’m capable of and what I deserve?

Focus matters.  What you point your eyes at matters; what you allow to be in front of your eyes matters.  What are you looking at today?  Is it something good for you, something that makes you better?

Stories

I’ve been thinking today about stories, how important they are for us human types. Stories teach like nothing else. Stories connect us to each other, and connect us to people we will never meet in person. When our lives are the most vivid and full, they are the kind of lives full of great stories.

I like telling stories; sometimes I’m pretty good at it. I’d like to tell more stories here, because stories are fun to write and fun to read. I just don’t feel like I have a lot of stories to tell right now. Most of my stories are about me and the people I know, and it seems like I’m not making a lot of stories worth telling. Life is okay, but it’s the kind of okay that looks a lot the same from day to day, and without a lot of punch in the details. Not a lot of drama or suspense. I don’t think my life is telling much of a story right now, and when I think about that, it makes me a little sad.

Maybe it’s the wrong perspective, though. So many fairy tales have a part that goes like “the princess lived with her wicked stepmother for 10 years” or “the boy worked in the stables, unaware of his destiny, until he was 18” before the interesting stuff happens. Those bits get glossed over really fast. But, if you were living inside that story, that quick sentence might be the majority of time spent from end to end. Maybe the interesting bits all happen within a few weeks, or days, or hours. The majority of words might be spent on such a little bit of time. But the characters have to live through all of the time. Only us readers get to skip ahead.

I wonder if this patch of my life is one of those “and then years passed” phases, the ones where the growing and character-building have to happen, before the princess gets to be brave or the boy gets to have an adventure. I’d actually really like for that to be true … and I hope the interesting bits are coming along sooner rather than later. Because I want to have more stories to tell, and I want them to be good stories.

Acceptance

The “word of the week” being talked about at the martial arts school right now is acceptance, part of a month-long series “Defining our Mission.” To hear some wise ideas about acceptance try this; to read more wise thoughts, go here.

In recent weeks my focus on taiji has sharpened, precipitated by achy knees and the realization that if I want to get better at this art I say I enjoy, I need to work harder at it. I do some things poorly and they’re not going to get better without specific attention and training. I can accept that.

Building physical strength and skills takes time and repetition. No other way. I know that’s true and I can accept it too. I’m building more time for practice into my schedule so I can do the repetitions I need.

Learning new concepts takes time too. The brain is a living, organic thing and it literally grows new brain in order to contain new information; our ineffable conscious minds also change only with time and effort. I can accept that. I know how it works.

The practical upshot of these true things is that right now I am frustrated as hell with my taiji practice. It is all effort and tension and strain, both mental and physical strain, and I hate that. I hate and resent it. It is difficult and demoralizing and I am struggling hard not to be hopeless.

That’s not so easy to accept.

Big chunks of me want to reject that sentiment. They want to call it “wrong” and tell me to buck up and try keeping a little optimism. How can I accept that the processes of learning are hard and take time and then feel angry about it? How is that right?

Honestly, I don’t know if it’s right or not. The fact is right now it’s real. Correct or not, it is a fact of this moment and if I am really going to accept reality, I have to accept that too.

Accepting that draws me closer to other hard truths I don’t really want to see. I may never be as good at this art as I want to be. It may take a really long time to feel like I have a grasp on things. Those are huge challenges for me, one who has spent years using high performance as the yardstick for acceptability. Facing those true things hurts. Accepting them is very hard. It’s a lot easier to just turn around and walk away. But I don’t want to walk away anymore. I don’t want to walk away from this.

So … I’m angry. I’m frustrated. I’m not sure if I’m doing the right work in the right way. I wish to goodness I were starting to feel movement connect in a better way. I’m mostly not.

It’s early days. It may take a while. I like things I can understand fast; the things I’m learning now apparently aren’t like that, and that’s an extra challenge for me.

I accept.

Dancing

I enjoy taiji a lot, and most of the time I totally look forward to my classes and practice. Lately though, it’s been mostly aggravating.

I understand the reasons why, and with any luck it will be a temporary condition that I can live with it, but for the moment it’s difficult and annoying. I’ve been having problems with aching knees during and after class, and while it’s not what I consider to be serious pain at this stage, I’m taking it seriously anyway. To be very clear: taiji itself is not hard on knees. Me doing taiji badly is what’s hard on my knees. I move in ways that let my knees get twisted, which is never a good idea and which taiji does not encourage. This is a practice I want to continue for a long time, so I want to get to the bottom of these problems now.

This week my primary coach spent a large block of time watching me move and pointing out areas where I go wrong. Some of them I suspected, a few took me completely by surprise. I’ve only just started to undo my bad movement habits and grow new ones, and it’s hard work. The familiar saying has it wrong — practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent. Some of these motions go back to my very beginnings in taiji practice, almost two years ago. I’ve got a lot of bad practice to overcome.

It’s worth it. I’ll readily accept the frustrations of this stage, because I believe that months and years from now, my taiji as a whole will be much better for it. But the emotional response at the moment is frustration. The physical response is tension. The mental response is confusion and fatigue, trying to slot new ideas into old holes, and then digging new holes when the old ones are all wrong.

This business of change is really hard work.

I’m taking a break from practice today, to give my brain and my body both some rest. When I came downstairs today, I plugged my iPod into speakers, as usual. I skimmed one of my high-rotation playlists to find today’s opening track. Right near the top of the list was “Too Good Too Bad.” I hit play and went off to the kitchen.

Without even asking, my feet started to move. This is a song that always makes me want to dance. While making tea and washing up, I crazy-shuffled all over my kitchen, just because I could. Just because it felt good.

Today this is my taiji. Today is the yin that balances a week’s worth of yang, the moment of receptivity and letting-go that balances many moments spent in focused, purposeful action. I’ve spent all week thinking about “right” stances and “right” posture and the “right” way to shift weight and step and move and turn. Today the “right” way to move is however I darn well feel like it. Practice will keep. Today is for dancing.