Monday, May 24, 2010

Blowing on a Violin

Teaching can be rather like talking into empty space, or like talking in public when the possibilities of being heard are slim.

It is not out of nastiness or through a lack of interest that the pupil does not listen, since in general it the pupil’s own will that has led him or her to seek to hear. However, any teaching has to pass through certain filters:

- Acceptance by the pupil’s ego
- Limits imposed by the pupil’s prejudices
- The pupil’s capacities for comprehension
- The quality of the pupil’s attention

These four “riders of the apocalypse” will pose certain challenges to the ease with which information can pass.

Whenever information directly threatens the omnipotence of the pupil’s ego, or confronts the fundamental values of his or her person, the information will be transformed, or even ignored.

Whenever the lesson goes against what the pupil has fantasised about practice, the information it contains will not bet through, or very little, being transformed along the way.

Any information that is to be received will pass by way of the filter of the intellect. If the intellect is limited or if it occupies to important a place within the pupil’s mental activity, the teaching will be unable to penetrate.

With the spirit perpetually stimulated by what the modern world offers, one’s capacity for attention is often very restricted. The “zapping” of the news, superficial forms of knowledge, and the constant boredom that goes with these do not encourage the development of openness towards the world.

The capacity to grasp a lesson is rather like lighting up an object with the beam of a torch:

The torch must be working (intellect available and disposed), it must be pointed in the right direction (towards the instructor or teacher), it must illuminate for a sufficiently long tie the same spot (focused attention), and the object of study must not be obscured by an obstacle (the wall of the ego).

If these different elements are united, then information can easily be grasped.

Teaching often means furtively pointing an oil lamp towards a wall which is concealing an object buried in the passageways of prejudices.

But if one keep’s one’s bearings, if one perseveres, little by little the lesson will become clear.

And this is what constitutes the joy of teaching: seeing a pupil progressively grasp what is obvious to the teacher; finding the other in a shared knowledge, and observing that there is a genuine unity in knowledge.

This communion partakes not of the domain of the intellect, but more broadly of the conscious experience of humanity.

What needs to be accepted is that the understanding of a lesson represents only a small part of the process. It is an illusion to believe that what is known is also understood. If it is not “directed” by a lived, felt, visceral experience, knowledge remains nothing but a collection of concepts lacking practical application… as useful as a stamp collection.

Some will be tempted, in order to understand a subject better, to get distracted by alternative ways; others will fail to get far… but will come out of it with a nice stamp collection at least.

One also has to be honest: there are those who are happy to “know”, but who are not happy in their practice. This is honourable in its way, but it needs to be borne in mind that practice alone is transformative. It is not the acquisition of a slimming product that makes one thinner, even if one knows about dieting; rather it is the effort linked to the process.

Teaching is marvellous but it requires one not to be rushed.

The return of the good weather permits one to benefit from a strong energy. Let us therefore make the most of it by training to be more-than-ever present to the reality of daily practice.

In order to practice well, it is advisable not to forget one’s first lessons, not to underestimate one’s capacity for transformation, and to find an openness from within the imbroglio of one’s own prejudices.

Happy practice, one and all!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

To walk in step with the world, one must learn to walk alone

For this year of the tiger, let’s review together a short summary of our practice.

The teaching method and its traps.

The five factors in practising

At the outset it is necessary to find a way of practising individually. The ancient texts cite for us several criteria that must be met: it is indeed necessary to find a Way, a Teacher, a Group – and all this in a time-frame and a space that suit our personal stage of development.

From the start one needs to engage with the teaching that one has chosen. Whether this is the fruit of an encounter or of an active search, it needs to correspond to one’s need.

It is useful, for example, to be aware of the origin of any spiritual path before stepping down it. If this path is one of renunciation or of religious isolation, it is unlikely to be compatible with the civic life of anyone who has a job.

It may be hard to verify this fact, but techniques for spiritual relaxation which consist in withdrawal from the world are unlikely to prove effective when urban life needs to be confronted.

It is important to find a path, or way, which ties in with one’s lifestyle.

Say what you like, it is just not practical to be obliged to wear orange clothes every day of one’s life…

Having chosen the Way, it is necessary to find the teacher.

A teacher who is a scholar may well be capable of discoursing upon and teaching the texts of the way, but a teacher needs to be more than a scholar… he needs to have practised what he is teaching; better yet, he should still be practising.

If one day you go into the mountains in some remote region, you will be more inclined to choose a local guide who is familiar with the terrain than some erudite individual who has written a book about the region…

A teacher must be not only an accomplished practitioner, since the fact that it is working for him does not necessarily make him a good teacher and does not guarantee that he is able to pass on his knowledge.

The teacher should ideally be someone who is happy and who has followed the teaching that he is now transmitting; who lives according to his chosen Way. And it is preferable that he still be practising actively.

It is important also when following the Way, that one’s fellow practitioners, male and female, get on well together and that the group dynamic be one of open exchange rather than of competition.

It is impossible that everyone should be friends, but an “entente cordiale” should at least prevail. A member of a group who is unable to integrate will never feel right; a group which contains individuals who perturb it will not develop well.

The three elements necessary for healthy individual practice are now in place.

What needs to be added to this is the component of space/time: it has to be the right moment and the right place.

When the conditions are favourable, then one needs to plunge in, get involved, invest oneself.

It is important to realise one’s luck in finding a practice for self-discovery which one enjoys, and to be responsible enough to take it seriously.

The chance to question oneself: a way towards the real

Questions about the human condition, a refusal to settle for slim rewards, the desire to know one’s true place in the world – these are all good reasons for entering into the Way.

In fact, all expectations, even the most misdirected, are good ways to be prompted into a personal search.

One’s initial expectation, which is always a fantasy, needs to be overcome through serious practice. The reason why one starts to follow a teaching is always a bad one – without fail. But this is a truth which reveals itself only in the course of practising.

Daily practice helps the dispelling of illusions and the gaining of a better perception of what is real.

One’s perceptions are always coloured by one’s prejudices and emotions: there is no such thing as an extrinsic perception.

Whatever the stimulations to one’s senses, that are then interpreted inwardly, these amount to merely what one accepts that one should see.

Look at the way one’s mood and feelings are able to change how one takes a compliment, an insult, or a piece of news.

Through balanced practice, one can eliminate a significant part of one’s prejudices and thus perceive the real world more correctly.

This meeting with reality is a journey that can only be undertaken alone, since sensations are uniquely internal.

Practice means learning how to train

It is important to understand that practice requires discipline – but a discipline that is joyous and enthusiastic.

This discipline should not be forced, but discovered through the benefits gained by direct experience, through one’s daily engagement with the Way.

The path that leads to self-knowledge leads also toward whatever is not of the self, toward the world, and toward sharing; but the inner work needs to be undertaken alone.

One’s relation with what is other than the self – with the other – will have an enormous impact on one’s relation to oneself.

The most important thing is to be enthusiastic about one’s daily practice, and to seek for an intimacy with every aspect of the Way.

The accumulation of knowledge without the work of assimilation that takes place in daily practice adds up to nothing: only direct experience, itself linked to an acting-out, has value for the practitioner.

Just do it..! For it is only in doing it that “it works”.

The teacher shows the Way, the practitioner does all the rest

It is clear that the role of the master, of the teacher, is cardinal: he gives the information that reveals the method and gives corrections which assist the pupil to practise properly.

What is more, if the teacher is a “good” teacher, he always has an answer to his pupils’ questions.

The teacher need not be erudite when it comes to practice, but it may be that he likes to be well informed about matters of the Way. The teacher should not just be a good practitioner himself, but needs to have passed through the stages that he is himself teaching.

The advantage of a teaching that has its roots in antiquity is that it has had a chance to grow through information and responses gathered over time, which help make it adaptable to all and sundry.

What the teacher gives should always be in proportion to what is being requested, following the principle of equilibrium.

But be careful with the role you ascribe to the teacher. He should not be permitted to obscure the importance of the pupil’s own common sense, or the pupil’s responsibilities towards his or her daily life. While he should be available, the teacher is not there to shoulder the pupil’s burdens or to organise a daily crèche. Yet if the teacher does not know the pupil personally, how will he ever be able to help him?

The Fantasy of Three Types of Laziness

In our tradition, there is talk of three types of laziness: “grumbling, loitering, and pretension”.

Grumbling, moaning, and making a running commentary should be forgone in favour of practice.

But careful: it’s not a matter of bottling everything up or of withholding communication from one’s fellow practitioners or one’s teacher… Most important is not to go round in circles complaining about false problems, while all the time looking to be reassured.

Life is not a reassuring experience, and nor is the Way.

“Loitering” is a friendly way of saying “sulking”. Despite being aware that practice is doing one good, one may fail to practise, assured of one’s own intellectual and physical superiority.

This is fair enough, in that everyone is free to do what he wants. But if one does not practise, then it’s not going to work out. One will sooner or later find oneself in a deep and dark abyss, mired within one’s fantasy of greatness and unable to respond to whatever the world is offering.

And then there is pretension…

This is the most devious form of laziness: one tries to come more frequently to class but only in order to “seize upon” titbits of information (maybe a secret that slips from the teacher’s lips when he’s a bit distracted!); or one tries to read on the subject of practice, to swot up on what others are doing and verify that it’s not better than what one is up to oneself; one debates and changes one’s mind; one weighs things up and undermines the Way, wasting one’s time in doing so – but subtly.

So subtle is the method that sometimes one notices nothing whatsoever, and it is possible to get away with this throughout one’s journey on the Way if one fails to broach the subject with one’s teacher… The Way which, as a result, will offer only a superficial form of knowledge.

One of the founding concepts of our tradition is that of the natural cycles: Everything in good time.

Even with the best teacher in the world and with all the qualities of an ideal student, time is going to be of the essence.

There can be no real practice without digestion of what is being taught: the time of learning is what permits the passage to real practice, but one needs to be capable of making what has been learned one’s own.

The Way is a path for life which helps one to understand oneself, to encounter the other with openness, and to go with the changes happening in the world around.

It needs to be accepted that nobody – nobody – can do this work on the pupil’s behalf.

As it is stated in the Daozhang:

“Not to practise when one knows the Way is idiotic;

To train too much is a way of avoiding life and its responsibilities;

To seek through 50 ways is the way to ensure certain impasse.”

Usus Magister Est Optimus.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Simplicity in practice

Busy training: practice or distraction?

It too often happens that under disguise of daily training one is amusing oneself more than practising. Indeed, the exercises which suit us are often those which amuse us while those which disturb us are ignored. When one follows this tendency one runs into a mental complexity and confusion that is draining on the spirit.

But what is one really doing when one is training?

Avoiding issues and real questioning, one may even be feeling from reality…

What is the goal of practice?

What are we doing when practising?

Needless to say, a frank discussion with one’s teacher can help…

It is not important to know the goal of the exercises one is practising, in that this does not help one to progress more rapidly; rather practising becomes simpler if it retains something spontaneous and natural.

Learning and practising

It is not possible to practise without learning. Nor is it possible to practise properly without learning from one’s teacher. But it has to be understood that neither learning nor practising is in itself the goal of teaching.

What one is aiming for in learning, and then in practising, is a rediscovery of freedom, spontaneity, naturalness.

The fact of “learning” spontaneity and “naturalness” is a very Taoist paradox…

To be constantly learning new things has a meaning only if one is practising, otherwise it constitutes a distraction.

Practising without following right through on what one is being taught means limiting the depth of the teaching.

But learning and practising without going towards an embrace of a certain form of freedom is a waste of one’s time.

This liberation, this “formlessness”, is rooted in the precision of one’s practice.

Spontaneity and naturalness, if they depend on one’s confused perception of worldly things, are merely illusory. Perceptions reach consciousness only after passing through the filters offered by our egos and our unexplored psyches… One’s perception of reality is anything but a matter for cheering, as things are at present.

The three elements of training (learning, practice, and liberation) are the “three treasures”, and are in relation with the three inner treasures: Jing (essence), Qi (energy), and Shen (spirit).

Simplicity in practice: San Bao

You have a collection of one thousand and one exercises; for my part I have ten times that number; but the whole stack obeys a simple logic:

“The study of the Three Unities permits oneness and full consciousness with the goal of a perception of changes in reality”

To sum up: an understanding of the three parts will permit one to unite one’s body and one’s spirit.

What are the three parts which need to be worked (for those who are having trouble following)?

- The body
- Energy
- Sprit

The body: relaxed, strong, and grounded

Work on the body is above all work on one’s health. One can work only when in good health, especially as practice makes demands on one’s time. Good health is expressed in three ways:

- Relaxation: leading to a easy circulation of organic fluids. It can be tested and educated first and foremost by coordination
- Strength: leading to a body which is resistant to aggressions coming both from without and from within. It can be developed by the “wai gong”, external exercises
- Grounding: leading to a capacity to understand Reality. It can be developed in several ways…

The circulation of energies: fluid exchanges

A fluid circulation is the source of good health, physical and mental, and requires that one go somewhat further than mere relaxation of the body. There exist three important stages in the “nei gong”:

- Coming to consciousness of inner sensations
- Mobilisation through will power
- Natural and fully conscious exchanges

Consciousness of the spirit: present but unconcerned

Failure to know oneself is the source of a constant distress; yet it is the rare person who is what he thinks himself to be. Exercises in taking consciousness of the spirit exist so as to help one to identify and encounter the person one really is. There are, of course, three stages:

- Self-observation
- Observation of the world
- Global perception

It is futile to hope to comprehend everything immediately, but it is advisable to examine one’s practice to see if it contains these three parts.

Once again, an honest exchange with one’s teacher is the origin of clear-minded practice.

The natural state: learning, practice, and freedom

In any practice that is complete and enlightened, little by little the exercises will be understood in their precision, and from the mastery of them freedom will be allowed to emerge.

Freedom demands a certain structure, it demands a spontaneity nourished by properly educated relaxation, an intuition fed by knowledge… with the ensemble opening out onto naturalness.

Practice is not contained in a particular movement or way of breathing. Yet without learning this movement or this way of breathing, there can be no practice… Hence the paradox.

- Exercises in the arts of combat are not combat
- Exercises in coordination are not relaxation
- Exercises in inner alchemy are not alchemy
- Exercises in Qigong are not an exchange
- Exercises in meditation have nothing to do with the meditative state

There must be no confusion.

In conclusion, therefore, understand the following:

“The entire putting into practice of one’s teaching must go in the direction of relaxation of the body, of circulation of energy, and of settling of the spirit – and at times the three together. You cannot practise without an awareness of this. Having achieved this awareness you are already in the simplicity of the Way.”

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Devil’s Greatest Ruse

There exists a danger in practising that can become a source of time-wasting, though natural enough as a phenomenon. If one’s adherence to the Way allows one to develop one’s body, one’s spirit, and one’s general circulation, it may also develop one’s ego. This inflation of the ego may well pose problems, and can even thwart one’s evolution.

The worst thing that can happen is for one to believe that one has understood, to feel as if one has well and truly arrived. By definition, the Way is an endless journey, a limitless evolution.

It can happen that as one perceives an increase in one’s strength, one finds oneself transformed into a threatening idiot; just as it is possible that as one achieves a feeble grasp of some minor point of practice, one can be metamorphosed into a mouthpiece spouting presumptuous expressions.

The Way is a school of life that permits an improved exchange with others and lets one embrace a joyous life as well as benefit from a deepened apprehension of changes in the World… It is not a “factory for producing pompous fools”.

You, engaged practitioner, do not let your ego carry you towards the dark side of the Way, do not let your mind draw you towards the trivial nastiness of vanity, resist any “dirty foolishness” which already has more than its fair share of proponents.

It is possible to feel oneself truly changed thanks to practice, yet this change is not always an end in itself… it is a passage. These successive passages are going to lead you towards a clearer consciousness of yourself. This process is not necessarily to the taste of your mind or of your ego; it directly threatens your worldly masks and deceptions.

The best defence against this is to let yourself believe that you have arrived, that the Way holds no more secrets for you, that you are coming close to achievement…

Here’s news for you: total achieving never happens!

We are often taken up with our daily worries and only rarely are we even partially conscious of this. But thanks to practice of the Way it can happen to us to taste moments of union and completeness. Trying to achieve is a method in which the proportions are inversed, which is to say that it encourages one to continue to operate with what remains of the idea that one formerly had.

The more you get used to practising, and the stronger you become, the more important it becomes to be conscious of the significance of relations with others. It is in your relation to the world that you express your capacity for the Way in your life, not in your own head or in the privacy of your cellar.

It is important in daily life to make the most of the benefits of the Way so as not to let “fellow travellers” put you off. Yet it is far from indispensable to show yourself as disdainful, pompous, or full of yourself.

What we are practising is a Way for life, a practical teaching which allows one to make the most of changes in the world and with others. One learns to ignore superficial worldly satisfactions, while judging the quality of one’s development through one’s relation to others.

In this Spring season, when energy is strong and often hard to control, it is easier to spot one’s inappropriate behaviour, when it is vain or overly critical.

The anger and frustration that it is possible to feel towards everyone and everything, the feeling of difference of superiority, all the phenomena linked to one’s figure as “me the practitioner” – the whole lot is rooted in our weaknesses and fears.

In this state of ego inflation, nothing can evolve, nothing can develop. It is possible to remain for years in such a state, and it is also possible to decide once and for all that one is right… from which time it becomes impossible to progress.

Often it is very hard to know where one has got to, to regard oneself without prejudice, even when everyone around one is perfectly aware what is happening. In the Way, this is the job of the teacher, yet one still needs to be capable of speaking to him…

Baudelaire has written: “The greatest ruse of the devil is to make us believe that he does not exist”. So do not let ourselves be tempted by the dark side of our minds.

Practise with an exemplary openness and freedom, observe your relation with others, the masks and the deceptions that take hold, the emotions projected onto an often innocent environment. No longer accept to allow yourself to be dominated by a jealous ego or a fearful mind: react, and step onto the long road that leads nowhere…

“The Way must be practised in a Cycle (of jing) to be understood,

It is refined on the following cycle and is thus integrated,

The third cycle permits one to master one’s destiny,

Until finally, vanished, it is possible to live.”


For those who practise daily it will be useful to give some thought to refining the use made of time on the Way…

In concentrating, which is useful in the beginning to avoid distraction, what is established is a “tunnel-vision” sort of focus: nothing exists apart from the object of our concentration; yet even so this lasts for nothing more than two or three seconds at a time.

This “closing in” upon our action automatically reduces one’s other perceptions; as a result, a particular movement will become the focus of attention of all our perceptions, as well as of our determined thought, for the duration of our effort.

This works well enough, but in general concentration cannot sustain itself for long… and when it ceases everything else disappears along with it. The eruption of distractions can even go so far as to make us forget the original object of our concentration.

Important though it is, concentration is a “tension”, constituting a means of working “by force”. And this when no method that works by “constraints” can last for long, since its lack of naturalness makes it unsuited to life.

When we are learning a physical movement, without first having passed through the acquisition of “gong fu”, we need to employ concentration in order not to lose ourselves. We also need to repeat a gesture sufficiently often for it to “enter” us. For most people, a movement made with a certain degree of tension will be more easily felt, and this because tension gives rise to a stronger sensation.

In general, a movement which is unknown to us will create tensions within us and will require an effort that is not in realistic proportion to the real physical effort required: we use force in order to manage to copy the gesture, exerting resistance against the limitations of our stiffness and coordination. When the movement has been learned, we will normally use only the degree of force that is appropriate to the effort required.

If we were to retain the same physical tension every time we execute a movement that has been learned we would end up stiffening and injuring ourselves. If this does not happen it is because physical pain brings us back to our senses, fear of pain sufficing to remind us not to push things too hard.

For the mental, emotional, and intellectual aspects of the learning process we have recourse to a form of “tension” in order to acquire the gestures, and this tension is called concentration.

What is more, it is easy to stay “concentrated” throughout one’s practice, indeed throughout one’s life, even though one is doing oneself harm, since inner difficulties create a different sort of pain from that of physical suffering. This is a pain that we are quite capable of sustaining and accumulating because it is less physical and for that reason may appear to be less serious.

Concentration, useful as it is for entering into practice, can become a source of tension and stiffness in the Shen (the spirit) and can even be detrimental to good health (or it can at very least limit the benefits of a practice that is oriented towards health).

No practice that is focused on too many details at once, or that aims for perfection in the execution of gestures, can bring relaxation. In the learning stage, it is very important to progress gently but constantly. If what is sought is perfection, one’s practice will be conducted in the void, since perfection does not exist: it will never give rise to anything except a certain unhealthy rigidity.

On the other hand, if one is unable to focus, to feel or reproduce movement, one’s tendency may be to seek out compensatory mental satisfactions, watching videos or hunting for “advanced levels” in secret hidden arts… All the time forgetting the most important thing of all, distinguishing one’s left from one’s right.

The present text does not intend to encourage anyone to think that it’s enough merely to relax (to do nothing!) for everything to come of its own accord. Not at all. There should be no confusion possible, given my introductory remark: “For those who practise daily it will be useful to give some thought to refining the use made of time on the Way”.

“Attentiveness” is relaxed concentration.

In “attentiveness” is to be found the advantages of concentration, but with an openness far greater than to be found in “tunnel-vision”. Of course, at the outset it is this very openness that constitutes the problem, being the probable source of distraction.

In daily practice, the gesture that has been learned requires a modicum of effort. It requires concentration so that it be “understood”, and a certain measure of tension during its initial executions. Yet it should soon come to require diminishing effort, and for practice to be really profitable this economy of effort needs to be maintained.

One’s practice needs to be integrated into one’s daily life, yet what is habitual must remain attentive rather than concentrated. The build-up of tension is thus reduced as relaxation is gained.

It is easy to get used to tension, as tension permits one to feel more strongly. This is a form of laziness of the senses and it is easily developed. Think of the fondness for intense sensations, big emotions, bungie-jumping, body-building… All such ways of “feeling more alive” can become ways of preventing one from fully apprehending the simple perceptions of one’s daily life.

In our Taoist approach, relaxation during practice encourages a sort of silence in the mind and relaxation in the body, which in turn allow one a full enjoyment of life. The simplest perceptions come to amaze one, and constant attentiveness develops as one comes to be fully alive.

By contrast, training through concentration and in a certain overall rigidity does away with the benefits of physical practice and condemns one to flattering one’s ego in order to achieve some intellectual satisfaction at least. But it is a harmful and illusion-bound form of practice.

Being attentive to what one has learned, while accepting the need for a certain concentration upon which progress depends, one must aim for relaxation and simplicity: body and spirit should not remain in a state of tension under pain of heightened suffering; one should accept the structure letting-go offered by the Way, and go on practising.

If we are unable to find a harmonious form of practising, there is every chance that the problems which arise will derive from our failure of understanding than from the Way itself.