I haven’t published anything for many weeks.
Haven’t written much.
What I have written seems inadequate for the times. Unworthy of consideration in such heady days.
Instead, I have watched, bemused, as the World is torn apart and Reality is reshaped around us. Brexit, Trump, the revival of the Far Right, the relentless dismantling of the UK Welfare State, the distinct possibility that the Kingdom will not remain United. A Right wing media shouting “News” that is partial and untrustworthy. And a distinct feeling that the axes of what is “real” are shifting at a level way beyond the grasp of politicians.
All my energy and focus needed just to hold steady my sense of self.
Yet, I have a sense that the ravages of the storm are forcing me to define more keenly what it is that animates my soul. The howling gales tearing away that which is not truly necessary for my survival. I don’t have the strength to carry luxuries any longer. Can no longer afford to pretend that some thing matters if it does not. Just for the sake of fitting in.
Perhaps that is the lesson of the storm. It will only allow us to hold on to the bare essentials. That which we can enfold in our arms. We cannot save everything. Most of what we had around us will be blown away. All those things that made us feel safe and comfortable – gone! Reduced to tinder and rubble.
So, we must think carefully about what we wish to keep hold of. And, what’s more, we must learn to think in a particular way. Learn to think with the entirety of our beings. Not just with our heads. We must allow our whole bodies to have their say. For we are embodied souls and our bodies have intelligences far greater than just those of the Mind.
Here in the Modern Western World we hold great allegiance to Mind. We elevate it and bestow upon it an importance that is disproportional to its actual capabilities and purpose. We fail to recognise its limitations.
Last Friday morning I was, as usual, teaching my tai chi class. I teach Moy Tai Chi, a modified Yang form. We learn a series of 108 moves which we refer to as the “form” or “set”. It takes 15-20 minutes to perform the set, several years to feel that you know the sequence and a lifetime to master the moves. It demands patience, discipline and perseverance. It can be hugely frustrating and massively rewarding. If you want to improve, you have to work at it. There are no short cuts. Something you eventually learn is that your brain cannot remember 108 moves. You cannot consciously think about which move comes next, think about how to do it properly and then execute the move – there just isn’t time. Instead, you train your body to remember the moves. You practise. Repeat the move again and again. Repeat it until it feels like the natural thing for your body to do in these circumstances. Then repeat it some more. Repeat it until you don’t have to think about it. Then repeat it some more.
My Friday class are all fairly experienced. Many of them have been practising tai chi longer than I have. We usually start the class by performing some of the five Foundation Exercises (key repetitive movements that are of great value in beginning to train the body), then move on to perform a set. We did this. Sometimes I watch the class in order to figure out what they could profitably work on this week. On this occasion, I joined in and performed the set with them. It went well. There is a distinct feeling to being part of a group completing a set that goes well. A special charge that comes from working together as a unit. When the moves of the many are synchronised and in harmony, a greater energy is created. It is most satisfying to be held within this energy field. It makes you happy.
The good set ended and we all felt the happy glow.
Normally, we then go on to work on some aspect of the set that needs some fine tuning. But, this time, for some reason, I asked the class to perform a second set straight afterwards. But, this time, facing the opposite direction.
I teach my classes in Priory Hall – a lovely old community hall that stands adjacent to the ruins of a medieval priory from whence it derives its name. Built in 1850 as the local school, it is now a well used community resource. A venue for exercise classes, meetings, concerts, films, fund raising events and more. I love the hall. It is five minutes walk from my home. It is easy for me to use and well run by people I know and like. It has a warm and welcoming atmosphere. It has history. It feels solid. Part of the fabric of its place. I have been doing tai chi there for seven years now. It feels like an old friend.
But there is a danger with old friends. Danger of complacency. Of falling into habits. Habits that become comfortable but are, ultimately, not productive. Habits that hold us back. Prevent us becoming what we need to be. It is all too easy to sink into routines. Especially if they feel comfortable. We all enjoy a bit of comfort. Who in their right mind would choose to deliberately make themselves uncomfortable? But routines, even comfortable ones, are dangerous when they become habits. When we stop remembering that there are other ways to do things. When we begin to assign to what is merely habitual routine, the status of Truth. The title of Reality. When we forget that Truth is plural. That there is always an alternative point of view. A different way to get things done.
If you only surround yourself with old friends. If you only ever choose the comfortable option. Then, there is a real danger that you will only ever hear the same old stories. Safe, familiar stories told to shore up comfortable assumptions. Safe stories to create cosy realities. And you will be stuck there.
So, we all turned around and began the set facing the opposite way to normal. Deliberately disrupting the habitual. Just to see what would happen. To see if we would learn anything new. The results were interesting. When you perform a complex series of movements like the set, you unconsciously make use of a plethora of visual cues and markers to orient yourself in space. When I perform this punch, that window will be to my left. As I complete this turn, the radiator will be in front of me. Remove these cues and, potentially, you become very disorientated, lost in a sea of possibilities – what comes next? Kick or punch? Is it Strike Tiger or Repulse Monkey? And there isn’t time to think about it. One movement should flow seamlessly into the next. No pause. No break. In effect the entire 108 moves should be a single, continuous movement. You just have to know what comes next. Remove the cues, abandon your habitual helpers and, what we discovered was, you have to find somewhere else to orientate yourself. You have to go somewhere a little deeper, more internal, less reliant on external help. You have to shift your concentration to somewhere within. But concentration is the wrong word. Too tense. Too rigid. It’s more like a shift of focus. You have to focus within but stay relaxed. Trust your body. Trust it to remember. After all, you have been training it for years. Your body knows how this goes. Learn to trust it. Relax. Let go of Mind. Enjoy the sensation of your Body being in control. Allow your Mind to take a rest. Admit its limitations. Mind is out of its depth here. Body does the job of remembering much better. You don’t have to do Tai Chi to experience that. Any golfer who has worked to improve their swing. Any tennis player their serve. They will know how the body remembers. And isn’t memory held most powerfully in the body? That smell that reminds us of a day in our childhood. That song that evokes a memory of an old friend. The feel of that woollen blanket that, somehow, takes us back to our fifth birthday, being held in the arms of our mother. Memory is embodied much more powerfully than the thin wisps of recall that float around the Mind.
We all enjoyed the set we performed in the opposite direction. We learned something new. We learned to trust our bodies and, in doing so, experienced a sense of self reliance that was hugely empowering. We freed ourselves from the shackles of the habitual and it felt good.
So, I feel that there is great merit in finding opportunities to disrupt habitual patterns on a daily basis. Every day, try and do at least one thing that goes against the grain. Do something that is stupid and senseless. That seems insane. That disrupts the flow. That breaks free of Control. Free of the prison of what is expected. Of what you expect of yourself. Life can be a prison sentence. You can be held by chains of Expectation. Or life can be an Adventure. A Sea of Possibilities. It’s your choice.
Here are a few suggestions of ways to make everyday an Adventure.
- Brush your teeth with your left hand. Or right if you are left handed.
- Take off your shoes and walk barefoot outside. Just for 5 minutes.
- Put up a tent in your back garden. Spend the night there.
- Turn off the lights. Light a candle instead. Spend a night without electric light.
- Go to a charity shop. Buy an outfit and wear it that day.
- Go for a walk in the rain.
- Start the day with a cold shower.
- Pick up a book. Open it at random. Find the fifth word in the second paragraph. Make this the next word you say,
- Sleep in a different room.
- Wear something that doesn’t suit you.
None of these are illegal, dangerous, or life threatening. But doing them regularly can change your life.
Thank you, Andy, for the reminder! I’m going to do all of them…. and perhaps more of my own device!
I found this story about John Muir in the newsletter of the Tehipite Chapter of the Sierra Club of which I am a member. I heavily edited it for brevity. You take what Muir said and take it further. Bravo.