Tai Chi

Most martial arts make a show of being hard, strong, and fast. By contrast, Tai Chi is calm, centered, and peaceful. It is a mystery to most people how something so peaceful-looking can be used for self-defense purposes. Yet, in ancient China, it was revered as one of the most effective fighting styles. So what is the secret?

I first learned the secret of Tai Chi on my sixteenth birthday when Ch’ing tossed me the keys to his car and said, “Let’s try out that new learner’s permit.”

I jumped at the opportunity to get a driving lesson. A license is everything to a teenage boy. Without one, dating is impossible. Thinking we’d start slow, I asked, “Are we going to stay in the neighborhood?”

“Head to the Interstate,” he answered.

I felt my stomach flop. I’m not sure what I expected, but Ch’ing told me to relax and not overreact. “Just point it between the lines, Grant. If you remember to make small adjustments, then you’ll be okay.”

Gulping, I backed down the driveway and did what he said. I figured he’d offer more driving instruction, but instead, he talked about his life in the monastery.

“Once a year, the old monks descend the mountain with food, wine, and medicine,” Ch’ing said. “First, they tend to the sick. Afterwards, they throw a huge party for the villagers, entertaining them with stories and martial arts demonstrations.”

“I wish I could watch them do Kung Fu,” I said. “Ch’ing, what is the ultimate martial art?”

Without hesitation he answered, “Tai Chi.”

“Yea, right,” I said. “It’s so slow. How could anyone fight with that stuff? I mean, it’s for old men, isn’t it?”

He didn’t answer. Instead, he said we needed gas and told me to take the next exit. Ch’ing went inside to pay as I began pumping fuel into his old convertible Cadillac.

For the first time, I gave our surroundings a good look. It was a very rough area. The streets were empty. All the other businesses looked closed. Most of the buildings in the immediate area were boarded. Vacant structures were covered in gang graffiti. The convenience store windows were covered with bars. I realized this was a very scary place.

As I surveyed my surroundings, I saw something move in the shadows. I couldn’t quite make it out at first. Slowly, a sinister figure emerged and took shape. His face was hidden by a hooded sweatshirt. He paused for what seemed like an eternity, and then began to move in my direction.

I did not like the looks of this at all. I felt my heart start pounding and I couldn’t catch my breath. My blood pressure increased a notch with each menacing step. By the time he stopped a few feet in front of me, I was in a full blown fight or flight state.

Time slowed. Sweat trickled down the small of my back. He shifted his feet and mumbled something unintelligible. It was a strange garbled sound. I wasn’t even sure it was speech. So much information can be gained about a person in just a few sentences. If you listen carefully, you can read their intentions. I learned nothing from the garbled sounds coming from him. I was frozen. I waited.

I tried to see his face…read his eyes and expression. Even at close range, his face was still obscured. He was like a shadow and it totally creeped me out. He spoke again. I still didn’t understand him. This time I responded, but my voice cracked before coming out high and sharp. Damn, I didn’t mean to do that.

He snorted in disgust and reached for his pocket. He was going for a weapon. My only chance was to hit him hard and fast. I was a split second away from attacking when I heard Ch’ing say in a warm friendly voice, “What can we do for you friend?”

Ch’ing had appeared out of nowhere. He quietly sided up to the stranger and put his arm around him. His manner was friendly. The embrace was warm. He used the connection to trap the mugger’s arm against his body. The hand reaching for the weapon was immobilized in the thug’s pocket. Ch’ing’s smile never wavered. His kindness was genuine. His control of the situation was absolute.

The shadow turned to look at Ch’ing. For the first time, I could see the mugger’s face. It quickly shifted from hatred to shock and confusion. Ch’ing’s appearance had been so unexpected. His lighthearted and friendly demeanor was equally astonishing.

As I processed this unexpected turn of events, I witnessed the most amazing transformation. Slowly, the mugger’s face changed until it mirrored Ch’ing’s warmth and friendliness. He visibly relaxed. His eyes began to twinkle just like my teacher’s. Ch’ing repeated his question. This time more softly, “What can we do to help you friend?”

After handing him a couple of cigarettes, Ch’ing gave him a pat on the back and sent him off into the night. His parting words were, “Be careful my friend. It can be dangerous out there.”

We climbed into the car and started for home. Neither of us spoke for a while. I was thinking about what could have happened and my hands started shaking. I needed to talk about it so I asked Ch’ing, “What happened back there?”

“Tai Chi lesson,” he answered.

“Lesson?”

“It’s easy to hurt people,” said Ch’ing. “That takes little skill. The greater skill is to diffuse aggression without causing harm. The best way to do that is to win the fight before it begins. “Nip it in the bud,” to quote your great American philosopher, Barney Fife.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. “That wasn’t a fight.”

He looked at me and said softly, “Then, why are your hands still shaking.”

I thought I had hidden it. I should have known better. Ch’ing doesn’t miss anything. I knew better than to give him a bullshit answer.

“I thought he was going to kill me,” I said. “It scared me.”

Ch’ing patted me on the shoulder.

“You did good,” said Ch’ing. “You stood in the face of danger and didn’t overreact.”

More honesty from me, “The truth is I was about to punch him when you appeared out of nowhere.”

“The better strategy is to embrace rather than destroy,” replied Ch’ing.

“How do I do that?” I asked.

“Join energy at the onset of conflict,” said Ch’ing.

“Huh?”

“Never run from conflict,” said Ch’ing. “Enter a dangerous situation and lead the attacker to safety. That is true martial mastery. Anything else falls short of the objective of an enlightened master.”

That’s exactly what Ch’ing did. If I had not seen it for myself, I would have thought he was talking about an unrealistic philosophy.

“Can you teach me Tai Chi?” I asked.

“Tai Chi is for living,” said Ch’ing. “It is about balance. The symbol people call the yin-yang symbol is a graphic representation of Tai Chi. It depicts opposites in balance. Opposites need each other. Light does not exist except in relationship to dark. Good and evil define one another. Grant, did you think that young man at the gas station was evil?”

“I thought he was bad guy,” I confessed.

Ch’ing pressed, “Do you wish there was no bad in the world, Grant?”

I answered without thinking. “Yes, I do. Then, we would have a perfect world, don’t you think?”

Ch’ing shook his head. “Good and bad define each other. If bad ceases to exist, then, so does good. When good and bad are out of balance, our life is filled with turmoil. The goal is to embrace life as it is. It does no good wishing things were different. If you can manage this, then you will be able to smile in the face of danger.”

Naked Tao

Chinese pictograms are not always easy to translate into modern English. This is particularly true for ancient philosophical texts like the Tao Te Ching. While I do not speak or read Chinese, I have been a Taoist for many years in the Gia-Fu Feng tradition.

Many years ago my teacher suggested that one possible translation for the title of China’s ancient book, Tao Te Ching, is: “A Manual for Living an Authentic Life.” In keeping with the idea of living an authentic life, I decided to title my first novel Naked Tao.

The use of the word “naked” has stirred up some tongue and cheek discussion about nudity.  However, it was my intent to use the word in a broader sense. I wanted to emphasis the idea that the way to live an authentic life is to strip away all pretense.

When you think about it, we spend an awful lot of time pretending. For example, we may pretend we have powers or skills we don’t have. In that instance, we are like the Wizard of Oz pretending to be an all powerful wizard, when in fact he was just a little old man hiding behind a curtain.

There are many other ways we tend to hide our true selves behind some artifice, but no good ever comes of faking it. We know who we really are.  It is always revealed to us in quiet times like mediation or prayer.  If we listen, what we might discover how truly amazing we are!

Direct Experience

I grew up in a blue collar neighborhood and learned the value of self-reliance at an early age. If I didn’t learn how to put brakes on a car, I didn’t drive. I didn’t read a book explaining the different theories of auto mechanics. I rolled up my sleeves and got my hands dirty. It was direct experience.

Higher education was the ticket out of my humble beginnings and into the life of my own choosing. I was so committed to the value of education, I didn’t just settle for a bachelor’s degree, but instead went to graduate school and earned a doctorate.

Given this background, you can imagine why I might be confused by Taoist views on education. “Give up learning and put an end to your troubles.” Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu – translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English. I believed learning was the solution to my troubles, but Lao Tsu seemed to suggest that it was the cause.

The term “Tao” is typically translated as way or path. I’ve come to view it as “how something is” or a thing’s true nature. Interestingly, this understanding comes from my humble upbringing and not from a book about the Tao.

I remember sitting on the porch on a hot summer night with my elders. I was just a kid at the time. They talked about simple things as they listened to the cicadas and watched the sun slowly descend toward the meadow stretched out before us.

When a neighbor showed up at dinner time they joked how he somehow always seemed to hear the dinner bell. My grandfather smiled as said, “Awe, that’s just Orville.” Somehow he saw Orville’s nature and accepted it. Thanks to these simple men I saw it too. It was a moment of incredible clarity.

We can read a library of books trying to learn about the Tao. We can listen to great scholars and sages talk about the Tao, life, and the nature of things, but at the end of the day the only thing that really matters is the extent that we experience the Tao directly. If we want to know a thing, we must experience it directly. Talking about it will never come close to our own direct experience.

So yes…give up trying to learn about life or Tao from books.  Experience it directly and watch your troubles melt away.

Community

Excerpt from Chapter 13 of Naked Tao

Uncle Jim is fond of telling people he has everything he needs in his own back yard. He is most proud of a 1970’s style barbeque pit he built himself.Every evening the barbeque sends puffs of smoke into the sky as he grills burgers and sips cold beer. Its distinctive smell is a like a call to prayer for friends and neighbors, who heed the call religiously.

Folks wander in from all four corners of the neighborhood. Gathering around the grill, they talk about the day’s events and watch meat sizzle over hot coals. Later they sit in Adirondack chairs grouped under an ancient oak tree and watch the setting sun paint the clouds coral and blue. These are simple salt of the earth people sharing simple pleasures. There are no fences separating them. They move freely from yard to yard, house to house. It is a community in its truest sense.

As promised, Uncle Jim led us to the back yard where we settled into comfortable chairs and watched a squirrel gather acorns for the winter. Up and down the tree he went, never venturing onto the low hanging branch with the bug zapper. The distinctive sound of the zapper’s grim work was balanced by the refreshing sound of bubbling water coming from Harrods Creek bordering the rear of the property.

The creek deepens enough at its mouth to provide a safe haven to area boaters who like to idle and party before emptying into the Ohio River. However, at this location it looks more like a mountain stream as it runs white over large flat rocks. This familiar scene calmed my nerves and the day’s events began to feel surreal.

Uncle Jim disappeared into the house and then returned a few minutes later with tall glasses of Jim Beam and coke. He flashed his trademark confident smile and told Ginny it was for medicinal purposes only. She returned his smile, saying she could use all the medicine she could get.

Uncle Jim looked at me and winked. “Grant”, he said, “this one’s a keeper.”

Ginny beamed at Uncle Jim. I took another sip of the bourbon and relaxed into the scene playing out before me.

We sat quietly for a few minutes and listened to the evening’s sounds. It felt good to not talk for a while, but then Uncle Jim spoke up. It was the last thing I wanted to talk about, particularly in front of Ginny.

Naked Tao is available at

http://www.amazon.com/Naked-Tao-Mr-Robert-Grant/dp/0990665402

 

Knocking at the Gates of Life

It is tempting to follow every shiny bouncing ball that comes our way, but the result is rarely satisfying. I prefer to take the simplest Qigong exercise, Knocking at the Gates of Life, and practice it until I lose myself.  It is then I feel the most alive as chi moves in and through me.

It is an easy exercise to learn.  You can’t do it wrong.  I’ve seen children do it naturally, without any instruction or thought.  They just do it.  It’s a beautiful thing to see.

Knocking at the  Gates of Life

Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent.  Lift the crown and sink your tail bone.  Feel the stretch in your spine as you stand between heaven and earth.

Breath deep.  Focus your breath a few inches below your belly button.  We call this place your Dantien (“Sea of Energy”).  It is your center and the “Commander and Chief” of all balanced movement.

Slowly twist at the waist and look behind you. First to the left, then to the right.  Your feet should remain rooted in the earth, while your upper body moves as an unit, rotating on a central axis around your Dantien.   Imagine your hands are heavy weights dangling at the end of your arms.  Allow them to swing from left to right with the rotation, tapping your kidney area.

Your movement should be effortless.  Don’t waste energy. This is something that you can do for hours and not feel tired.  Instead, you will feel energized.  Enjoy exploring your central axis!

The Tao of Ebola

The United States is fond of fighting metaphorical wars. We have seen wars on crime, drugs, poverty, cancer, terror etc. The latest is a War on Ebola, since it has made its way out of the dark continent and traveled west  to Texas.

While I’m not a physician, it does seem to me that the general approach taken to medicine in the US is to fight illness after it has taken root.  The western approach to health care is similar to taking your car to a mechanic.  Something gets broken and you are forced to fix it. On the other hand, in traditional Chinese medicine there is more of a  focus on prevention.

The traditional Chinese view is that life is full of pathogenic influences.  A bug has a better shot of harming you when you are in a weakened state.  For example, you are stressed by a change in circumstances at work and it’s keeping you awake at night.  On top of that, you aren’t taking time to eat sound nutritious meals.  In this weakened state, you get sick. You can wait until a pathogen gets a toe hold into you, or you can nip it it the bud when you are strong and at your best.

It’s possible that Ebola became epidemic in Africa because of the extreme poverty, and it won’t happen in the US.  While it’s true that the US is much richer than Sudan, it’s also true that we are stressed, often overworked, sleep deprived, and overfed but undernourished.  These conditions make us susceptible to a virus.

In keeping with the traditional Chinese view of healthcare, our first line of defense is to make ourselves strong.  Eat a nutritious plant based diet.  Practice meditation, yoga, tai chi, or qigong.  Take a vacation.   Enjoy your family. Visit the zoo or a park.  Breath.

 

 

Fear of Loss

CHAPTER 17

“A light heart lives long.” – William Shakespeare

A man fights many battles in his lifetime, but the only one that really matters is the fight for something you’re afraid to lose. It doesn’t matter much whether it’s a person, thing, or the cherished notions we hold about ourselves. All that really matters is how you handle that fear.

Fear of loss wasn’t something I knew much about. Then again I wasn’t sure I cared about much of anything. My divorce was actually a relief, rather than a loss. Stumbling into an unloving marriage doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s what I settled for. I knew I’d never get hurt.

The job…well I was hurt by John’s betrayal, but the job was also unimportant to me. It was a career I wouldn’t have chosen for myself. I had actually wanted to be a writer, but believed the voices in my head that told me it would lead to failure and poverty. So, I had taken the safe path.
Ch’ing had tried to tell me that settling for second best is never a viable option for an enlightened life. Fear causes us to settle for less than we deserve. It is a darkness of the spirit that reduces us to less than we are…a shadow of our true nature. Settling is a compromise with fear that never works out for the best in the end, because the purpose of life is to express our true nature.

Fear must be faced head-on with the determination to give it our best shot and enough resolve to accept whatever outcome fate holds for us. Ch’ing taught me to remain calm in the face of danger by centering myself in the present. Hours of full contact sparring made it an absolute necessity. He would attack on multiple levels at blistering speed…hands, feet, hips, shoulders, elbows flying everywhere, seemingly, at the same time until the pain of the blows got my full attention.

All of those hours of training fell away from me with sound of Ginny’s plea for help. Before I could answer Ginny, I heard another voice…an icy cold voice. It sent a cold fear down into the pit of my stomach. The voice told me Ginny was as good as dead if I even thought of calling the police. The voice said to wait for further instructions that must be followed without exception or she would die a slow painful death.

For the first time in my life, I felt the crippling terror of losing the most important person in the world to me. I knew I could not lose her, but my knees buckled and I gripped the phone like it was some sort of lifeline. Fear had arrived full force into my life. I had to rescue her, but I was frozen in place by the terrible news I had just received. It was Padma who came to my rescue.

“Come sit with me, Grant,” he said softly. “It is time for meditation.”

Padma led us down the bank of Harrods Creek to a large flat rock at water’s edge where he gracefully dropped to a perfectly balanced sitting position. Even though his back was ramrod straight, he didn’t look stiff. Instead, he seemed completely relaxed. For such a heavy-set man, he was amazingly nimble.

In sharp contrast to Padma, I was bent like a bow…rigid and filled with anxiety. The phone call from Ginny had ended abruptly. My repeated call backs dropped without a single ring. I desperately wanted to know where she was and who had her. If Ginny was taken by Slotter, then she was in grave danger. The not-knowing was unbearable.

“Grant, it’s time to get out of your head and come to your senses,” said Padma.

I felt a flash of anger and said a little too harshly, “What the hell does that mean?”

My anger didn’t last. It was instantly swallowed by the kindness in his eyes and just evaporated. I knew what he meant. It was time to quiet my worried thoughts and focus on the present moment. I really did try, but failed miserably. The last couple of days had been a nightmare that continued to plague me. My thoughts refused to be silenced.

With a graceful sweep of his arm Padma said, “What do you see?”

I half-heartedly glanced in that direction and mumbled something about a creek. Like any good teacher, he enthusiastically praised my correct answer. I knew he was pulling my leg, but the silliness of his praise somehow managed to hook me. So, I took another look.

When the spring rains pour heavy, Harrods Creek is a wide stream full of boulders and white water. On this summer day, it carried less water and flowed more gently around the rocks with only a touch of white.

The far shore was lined with dogwoods, redbuds, and a sycamore or two. Twenty feet downstream, a bushy-tailed red fox slipped quietly down the bank and took a sip of water. Two baby foxes followed close behind.

It is a rare treat to see a fox and a miracle to see a family enjoying one of the simple pleasures in life. The kids were more interested in play than water. They chased each other through the tall grass, darting back and forth in a joyful game of tag. Oddly, the fox family paid no attention to us until a splash sent them scurrying back into the safety of the woods.

The splash came from a small eddy behind the flat rock I was sitting on. A small tail fin was sticking vertically out of the water. I had never seen anything like it. How does a fish do that?

Curious, I reached down and grabbed hold with my thumb and forefinger. You’d think the alarmed fish would dart away. But it didn’t. So, I gave a little tug. Something pulled back, even harder. My competitive nature took over and I tugged back. The fish came out of the water, slipped through my fingers with a splash, and swam away.

I thought that was the end of it, but an angry water moccasin popped its head out of the water and glared at me for ruining its meal. I jumped out of my skin. Snakes scare me and water moccasins are one of Kentucky’s most poisonous varieties. Padma just laughed his ass off as I jumped to another rock.

“Real funny,” I grumbled. “I hate snakes.”

“You and Indiana Jones,” giggled Padma.

Comparing me to Indiana Jones was a stretch, but it somehow made me feel better and I smiled for the first time that morning.

“Oh, you’ve found your humor,” said Padma. “That’s good. Connecting with your inner smile is what meditation is all about. If you can do that 24/7, especially during a crisis, then you will have discovered the secret of life.”

His comments surprised me, so I said, “That’s it…that’s the meditation lesson. I thought we were going to sit in lotus posture and chant a mystical phrase or something.”

Padma’s only response was to do that laughing Santa thing he does. It was annoying at first, but suddenly I got it. A huge load lifted and light poured through me. Before long, I was laughing like Santa myself.

When the laughter subsided, he suggested I take a moment to acknowledge the healing that had just taken place and to never forget the difference it can make in one’s life. I can’t explain it, but I suddenly had this overwhelming sense of energy and felt invincible. All of my senses were heightened and I knew with great certainty that I could save Ginny.

“Anxiety is toxic,” he said. “Never let it rule you.”

I wanted to kiss him, but settled for a much manlier bear hug. The unmistakable thunder of Harley Davidson motorcycles interrupted our embrace and we made our way back to the house.

Six hogs thundered toward us in a staggered formation. There wasn’t a rice burner in the group. The lead chopper flew a black flag with a red dragon, its left claw squeezed blood from a beating heart and the right supported a big set of balls. The dragon image was also inlaid into the chopper’s paint job, flowing from the front fender to the rear. A small bell dangled from the bike’s frame just inches from the asphalt…a warning to the road gremlins that they weren’t to mess with this bike.

The solo saddle made it clear that this biker always road alone. The wide seat was filled with an even wider ass supporting a gut that hung way over the gas tank. The biker’s belly was covered with a tattoo of the red dragon except its claws stretched from his chest down into his dirty jeans. Long greasy salt and pepper hair was pulled back into a French braid. Mr. Braid’s long beard was divided into two similar braids that were tied off with chrome pony tail holders.

The next two bikes were less flashy…a couple of black Harley Low Riders with lots of chrome. The riders, however, were a different story. It was two chicks as different as night and day. The blond wore her hair man short and spiked at crazy angles. She wore no makeup and her only adornment was a hand full of huge silver rings that, when taken as a whole, formed the shape of a dragon. In fact, it looked like a set of fancy brass knuckles.

This chick looked like she could put a hurting on someone. Her thick muscular biceps would have made any body-builder proud. Obviously, she spent a lot of time in the gym. In fact, the closer I looked the more convinced I became she was a body builder herself. Ms. Amazon’s shoulders, back, chest, and thighs were massive, like her biceps. She was a big girl, but there wasn’t an ounce of fat on her. Odd, but she had this massive chest and no tits.

A thick black leather sweat band displayed a hot pink dragon centered on her forehead. Just below the dragon, wrap-around sun glasses rested on the bridge of her nose. Both nostrils were pierced with pink studs. A wife beater was stretched tight across her chest. It was stenciled with hot pink lettering that proclaimed: “I’m a Survivor Motherfucker.” A Susan G. Komen pink ribbon made it clear she was a breast cancer survivor.

Her faded jeans were held up by a thick black leather belt with an antique silver dragon buckle. The jeans were ripped at both knees and mid-thigh on the left. Strapped to the right thigh was a black handled commando knife. Her wardrobe was completed with square-toed black engineer boots.

The other chick was hot in a scary kind of way, all dressed in black like Cat Woman. This one had no need to confirm she was female. In fact, she wasn’t wearing a shirt. Her double D’s just barely squeezed into a black leather vest that looked as if it could burst at any moment.

She wore tight-fitting black leather pants that displayed a prominent camel toe. If there was any doubt about her role, a black leather whip with multiple tails tucked into her thigh-high dominatrix boots, made it clear she was the one who dealt out the punishment.

Ms. Dom’s witchy black hair blew wild in the wind and partially obscured her freakish white face. For an instant it formed a tai chi pattern that most people call the yin-yang symbol. She wore no eye protection, unless you want to count black makeup painted in a jagged pattern around her green eyes. If there was any warmth in her wide Cheshire cat smile, it was lost in blood red lips that stood out in sharp contrast to her pale face.

Close behind Ms. Dom was a gorilla clinging to a set of ape hangers. These are tall handlebars that extend above the biker’s head, giving the impression that he is hanging from a tree. He was the only rider wearing a helmet…a simple black brain bucket with stickers pasted all over it. He was still too far away to read them, but the red dragon pasted on the forehead was unmistakable.

There was no hair showing below the tiny helmet except for a mustache and goatee, unless you want to count the bushy unibrow. His brow was pinched tight and both corners of his eyes were pierced. King Kong had a square face and no neck. A thick tuft of reddish hair pushed its way through the neck of his Harley Davidson t-shirt.

The next rider in line rode hands-free. In fact, he was arched backwards over the rear wheel with his arms spread wide palms facing the sun. “Ole’ George” was painted on the tank of his vintage Harley Davidson Pan Head.
Ole’ George wore a crumpled black Fedora. I don’t have a clue how he kept it from blowing away. Maybe the hat was just too intimidated to cross him. His craggy face was cut with four parallel lines rising from the corners of his mouth…one set to his nostrils and the other to his cheek bones.

Despite the hot weather, his raw boned frame was covered with multiple layers of clothing. It was nothing fancy…a blue jean vest with club patches, flannel shirt open to the navel, and a black Grateful Dead t-shirt. I don’t consider myself a Deadhead, but for some reason I instantly heard a few lines of their song “Built to Last” play in my head.

The final biker was Eve’s husband, Gil. Shit. This time he brought his gang with him. The bikers pulled to a stop in front of the house and shut down their hogs. The rumble of Screaming Eagle pipes was replaced by engineer boots crunching loose gravel. They spread out like hunters driving their prey to the kill. A beat-down seemed imminent, but I refused to be cowed. Instead, I waited…relaxed and ready to fight, if necessary. It was the smallest of the bikers who broke the silence.

In a gravelly voice Ole’ George said, “You the motherfucker that killed Tiny?”