Our modern western culture is obsessed with being stimulated, delighted, awed and amazed. We have developed such a familiarity and boredom with the everyday that we fail to appreciate the extraordinary nature of the commonplace and seek out ever more stupendous phenomena. We have long since passed the point of exhaustion but we don’t know it and continue headlong into this unsatisfying, useless, pathological endeavor. (Okay, you could argue that it keeps the economy going.)
We all know the solution inherently: Slow down enough to discover and appreciate the superb nature of whatever we are in right now. There are any number of ways to do this and the Taoists invented Qi Gong exercises with this as one of the main goals.
There is a certain unique satisfaction in immersing oneself in a discipline so vast and deep that you never run out of new territory to explore. Yes this is still seeking, consuming perhaps, but internal discovery and gratification has a way of reverberating into your external life.
Taoist Qigong has standard exercises where the same movements are repeated ad infinitum and might appear to be boring and mindless. But hidden with the movements are numerous details that promote discovery, awakening, peace of mind and a sharpened sense of being alive, not to mention great health and how good that feels.
It’s common practice to spend months and years exploring the depths of any one standard exercise. Every time you practice you have the capacity to discover something new and different, an opportunity to go deeper.
Students often ask “How long should I practice?”
My best answer is “Until you discover something new.”
All Qigong exercises are governed by basic principles such as usefulness, efficiency, balance, integrity, relaxation, naturalness, groundedness, clarity, etc. (For a more formal list go here.) Typically you learn the main exercises by breaking them down into multiple sub exercises wherein all the same principles are imbedded. From there you integrate it all back together and apply it to whatever you need or wish to do. You might know the phrase “fractal zoom” denoting the repetition of patterns in ever smaller and larger scales.
Let’s take the standard Qigong exercise “Cloud Hands” as an example. Here you adopt a moderately wide stance and slowly shift your weight from one leg to the other, turn left and right, and raise one arm as you lower the other, all in synchrony. I recently made a list of 50+ details and sub exercises for Cloud Hands. One is simply shifting your weight 100% back and forth to each leg repeatedly, smoothly, maintaining a relaxed, grounded balance. Sounds simple enough.
Sub exercise Number 2, Try it with your eyes closed. Number 3, Try keeping your weight on one leg for a few minutes. Can you do either of these without generating any tension? Almost no one can.
Now a series of leading questions could arise and you’re about to discover something about your human nature. How When Why and Where did What kind of tension come in? What are your capacities and limitations here? You could spend many hours taking an honest stock of yourself, or you might rather focus on one little item like keeping your balance.
Next you could to take it to another level, to your mind and emotions. How do you react to your level of ability? Are you proud, satisfied, embarrassed, frustrated, in denial, neutral? Suppose that, in good Taoist fashion, you wish to do these extremely simple exercises as perfectly and gracefully as possible for a full hour. What is your approach? Do you buck up, get creative, have fun, persevere, get upset, fake it, get lazy, space out, give up? How do you measure success or failure? How do you react to either one?
If you haven’t realized it by now, what we are doing is using a very simple challenge as a microcosm for your life. How do you typically approach larger challenges? What are your habits? How does all this affect your interactions with people and your environment?
Whatever you find in the micro will almost certainly reflect the macro. Sooner or later you’ll have those “Ah ha experiences.” “Oh I didn’t know that l’d rather fake it than get it right.” ‘”I didn’t realize that I focus so hard I don’t enjoy anything.” “Why am I so dang proud of myself?” Most likely you will gain insights into what makes other humans tick also, which might increase your empathy and compassion.
This is not meditation or psychotherapy per se but it’s close enough for most of us and will accomplish many of the same things. You certainly could add meditation, if and when you wanted to take on yet more complexity.
Stepping back to the physical exercise, once you have a better picture of how you move and what you’d like to modify you can begin to experiment.
Sub exercise Number 4: Say your point of weight change as you land on one leg and push off toward the other, from Yin to Yang, is very clunky and you’d like to make it smooth and seamless. Here are three possibilities.
1. Slow down near the change point so that it takes longer. This is on of the natural courses of a sine wave with steep rises and falls between long ebbs and floods. We see this in the seasons where the light changes very rapidly in spring and fall and very slowly in winter and summer.
2. Add a little curve at the end point so that you have a small loop rather than a sharp bounce.
3. Anticipate the end points by beginning a return before you reach the end. One way is to have a part of your body pulling back while another part is still stretching out, effectively doing two opposite things simultaneously.
You might want to consider how these three methods could make other clunky pieces of your life more smooth and natural such as driving, dancing or diplomacy. Exploring the transition between Yin and Yang is an endless pusuit in Taoism.
If you go the the beach and watch the ocean waves you’ll see these same three things going on. 1. The distant waves move in sine. 2. When they break they loop. 3. At the beach the final inflow merges with the previous outflow. You’ll see a small sample of how nature creates and adapts to it’s own Yin/Yang fluctuations. Wherever you look you’ll find another variation.
Taoists love to invent Qi Gong exercises that follow nature. Which brings us to another point. When you understand the natural processes experientially from the inside out you can create your own movements, and because of this you will have a deeper appreciation for the whole unfolding. If find yourself creating new movement spontaneously it shows that you understand without the need to think about it. There is a certain joy that comes with this territory.
So what do we have? Through repetition and variation, we have continuous discovery of the vast complexity of human nature, which can make you more compassionate. We have creativity in your capacity to adapt and change. We have natural spontaneity and joy. You can’t download this kind of magic.
You can gain great insight through any field or even by scrutinizing any five minutes of your life. The genius of the Taoists was in designing natural exercises that promote insight, change and vitality in your physical body, the energy that governs it, your emotions, your mind and even your spirit. And that is very gratifying.