Layers Upon Layers

I have been practicing Tai Chi for 26+ years. During that time, I had a Sifu (a “Father-Teacher”) for about five years, and I didn’t even have that until I’d been practicing for about 4 years. My first period of study was a 1,000 day vow I took to do Tai Chi every day. During that time I got up to 5 hours of practice a day, with most averaging around 2, or 3. Most of my learning and exploration has come by way of my own practice. When I first met my Sifu, he was quite surprised that I had no previous instruction other than from books. He refused to be my “teacher”, saying instead that he wanted to practice with me and that we had things to learn from each other. I don’t say this to impress, but to highlight how my particular path has been laid out.

The deepening of my understanding of Tai Chi comes in fits and spurts. I’ll be going through the form, no different than any other day, and something will shift. It might be my stance suddenly dropping a couple of inches, or my pelvis flattening, or an energetic flow in part of my body that did not previously seem to have one (at least to my conscious awareness anyways.) These shifts are not apparent from the outside, generally. Only someone who had been working with me for some time, and who had a very keen eye, might pick up the difference. Mostly it’s just me who notes these shifts. I think that is as it should be.

The weakness of this approach is that I would probably be farther along if I had worked with a teacher for more than a quarter of the time I’ve studied Tai Chi. The strength of this method is that I can, at this point, say that my Tai Chi is “my” Tai Chi. There is something very special, and precious in that.

I’ve never nailed myself down to one path in life. I study many, and take what is useful from each. I make a decent Buddhism practitioner, a horrible Hinduism student, a barely passable Christian mystic, an okay Gnostic, an above average Discordian (a contradiction in terms of epic proportion), a somewhat skilled Philosopher, and so on. The one path I feel a good amount of comfort, and confidence with is Taoism. The reasons are many fold, but the pertinent one here is that Tai Chi, if anything, is a physical expression of Taoist thought. To a large extent, to study Tai Chi is to study the Tao. From that perspective, I have been studying Taoism for two and a half decades (actually more like three and a half since I studied Taoist thought before I took up Tai Chi.) Because my Tai Chi is “my” Tai Chi, I am afforded the opportunity to study Tai Chi, and thus the Tao, from “inside.”

This is something missing in my culture. By my culture, I mean the Western modern world of the 80’s and 90’s, in California. I don’t want to assume anything for other people. However, in my culture, a certain sense of positive ownership was missing. Other than vague notions of “finding my voice” given by early English teachers who saw some talent in writing for me, there was a basic sense installed that I should find some comfortable, well-worn path, and pursue that for life. Be a Doctor, or a Lawyer, or a Mechanic, or something. Luckily for me (mostly) I have never been much of a joiner. Tai Chi is the first place where I found great encouragement to make something my own, to find my own expression of self. That lead me to a lot of “independent study” in my life, and my wandering career path has definitely born witness to this proclivity.

I am slowly coming to learn, and be grateful for, how much Tai Chi has held open a welcoming space for me to explore who I am in the world. Others use different modalities. For some it is cooking, for some crafting, for some art, for some scholarship, for some religion, etc. Regardless, it seems to me that being human, and understanding what that means, requires some path to follow, develop, and make your own. Whatever that path may be, everyone who I have ever met who has found theirs has been far better for it.

photo credit

The Brain, The Future, and You

TheBrain

The brain, and by extension the nervous system, only tells you what is happening. It reacts to changes in the environment. It does not tell you what you are. At best it tells you where you are, and what is going on in the reach of your sensory organs.

It seems to be a fairly common fallacy though to take the brain as an authority on what you are.

It’s kind of like meaning. In itself, no occurrence has meaning. Each arising situation is complete within itself. It is memory and pattern making that binds meaning to any given occurrence.

The human nervous system dictates what information we are allowed, what form it comes in, and the intensity of our reactions to it. Nothing in there dictates what we are. It only dictates what we experience. And yet, when certain reactions occur in the nervous system that deliver feelings of joy, we say we “are happy.” That’s just not true. We are not happiness. Happiness is occurring. It’s the same with anger. Or, fear. Or, loneliness. In these cases our nervous system collects data and delivers these signals to us. Then, rather than simply taking in the messages, our cultural conditioning causes us to assume (and behave as) those feelings are what we are.

In some cases this is very much a linguistic phenomenon. One of my Tai Chi instructors once taught me a distinction between English, and Chinese. In English, the sentence, “I am angry” make sense. In Chinese the closest they get is, “I have anger.” It’s fairly easy to see that the Chinese version simply acknowledges the presence of information. In the English version we imagine that we have actually become that information. We go from feeling anger, to being anger itself.

That’s a bit schizophrenic, wouldn’t you say?

The human brain reacts to stimuli, combines stimuli from different sense organ types, then spins together patterns by comparison to storage in memory. We then pass these memories forward in time through the process Korzybski calls “time-binding”, which is the creation of artifacts (stories either told or written, records, histories). This binds us in a loop of repeating past history into future possibility. In a sense, the human being (not history) is doomed to repeat itself. We are at fault here. Not some mysterious bugaboo of “time.” We carry our past forward, in cultural artifacts, thus equipping the nervous systems of our children with imprinted patterns for digesting information and slotting into the patterns of the past.

What’s the solution?

Well, I have some friends who have actually rejected their humanity for a variety of reasons. They have come face to face with he horror that humans wreak on spaceship Earth, and have decided they want no part of it. So, rather than calling themselves humans, they refer to themselves as bunnies. I mean, have you ever seen a bunny build a factory for producing upholstery that pollutes the rivers and oceans? I thought not. I can see what one would prefer to live life as a bunny, rather than a onerous human being.

Still, I prefer to position myself as more of an evolutionist. I like to look forward for solutions to our predicament, while dropping the patterns and baggage of our past. I like to take in the reports of my senses while not being fooled into them dictating what I am. So, for that reason I shall refer to myself as an alien going forward. Perhaps a Sirian from Sirius. (Seriously?) Or, heck, maybe just a good old-fashioned Vulcan. 😉

Getting In Touch With Hunger

Hungry girl

As readers of this blog will know, one of the challenges in life I grapple with is weight. At my high point I tipped in at 400 pounds. It’s been an up and down journey (mostly down) and I am very proud of what I’ve accomplished. However, I am getting older, and as I accumulate years I see my focus changing a bit.

Because I have been on the journey of being healthy for more than half of my life, my feelers are perpetually out. So, a couple of weeks back I came across the documentary that made a big splash earlier this year, Eat, Fast, Live Longer, by Michael Mosley. If you haven’t seen it I highly recommend it. I found it fascinating. I then purchased Michael’s follow up book, The FastDiet and gobbled it up.

I have long held the idea of fasting in its religious/spiritual context. My one long fast at the end of my 1,000 days of tai chi was about that. What blew me away about this documentary was all the science behind fasting. Specifically intermittent fasting. I realized that I had been holding a lot of ideas about fasting, and starvation, and had swallowed whole a bunch of misinformation around the subject. The idea of doing a day long fast captured my imagination, and the benefits for fending off cancer and Alzheimer’s clinched it. (I have had a lot of fear around both of those things for most of my life, and they have both occurred in my family.)

The protocol that Michael settled on is called the 5:2 diet. What you do is fast for 2 non-consecutive days every week. On a fast day you are not going zero food, but instead you restrict to 1/4 of a “normal” healthy amount. (Roughly 600 calories for men, and 500 for women.) One of the things I really enjoyed about the book is that Michael harps a lot on the idea of finding what works for you. You can take your reduced number of calories when you would like. The fast day does not strictly have to be a day, but could be any 24 hour period (say 2pm to 2pm). He drives home the point, again and again, that you have to tailor it to you and find what serves you best.

On the non-fast days you eat whatever you would like. No restrictions. What some of the doctors Michael interviewed for the film, and follow up book found is that people do not seem to overly binge on their non-fast days. If people were going to make up for the 75% deficit of normal calories for the fast day, math would say they would eat 175% on the follow up days. What the doctors found was that people typically eat about 110% of their normal intake on their off days. Slightly elevated, but still at a net loss. That seems to be one of the primary reasons for weight loss on the protocol.

What interested me more than weight loss though was the drops in certain factors in the body that give rise to things like diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. People also report increases in mental clarity, and over all energy, as their body switches from perpetual racing and growing, to repair, recycling, and removal of pollutants.

Michael also deconstructs many of the myths around meal skipping sending people into starvation mode (it takes more than one day), and hunger ever increasing (it comes in waves.)

I decided to give it a go, and so far the results have astounded me. It’s only been two weeks, and I don’t expect miracles, but what I have seen so far has been fascinating. I don’t own a scale so I can’t tell you if I’ve lost any weight. I can tell you my pants are looser. More importantly some of my flexibility is returning. I also do seem to have more energy, and mental clarity. My meditation practice is particularly sharp on fast days.

What excites me more though is that on the days where I do eat I find myself naturally eating slower and enjoying the tastes more. There is wonderful “hollowness” that happens on fast days, and I feel lighter and more buoyant. I am re-learning what feeling hungry actually is, and it’s not bad at all. In fact I am realizing how much of my eating has been habitual. On days when I can eat I might skip a meal, not because I want to lose weight, but because I am not hungry yet. I don’t need the food. That is an amazing relief!

I have been diagnosed with hypoglycemia, and I am used to getting shaky and getting angered easily when I miss a meal. I’ve held that idea for all of my adult life. On my fast days I do not get the shakes, and I do not seem to be any easier to anger than on any other day. I am at a bit of a loss to explain why that shift has been so sudden, but I am very, very grateful for it. Could it be that I was misdiagnosed all those years ago? Or, could I have “grown out of it” and never noticed? Was my shakiness and irritability an insulin reaction? I don’t know. What I do know is that am very happy not to have that excuse in my back pocket to justify snacking when I was not really hungry.

I’m doing my own variation (of course) and currently it looks like this:

  • On Thursdays I have a small breakfast of coffee with whole milk and a vegetable frittata.  That leaves me a little bit of caloric room for a banana during the day if I get very hungry.
  • On Sundays I stop eating at 7pm, and do not east again until 7pm on Monday evening. I game with a group of friends I have had for 20+ years on those days and part of that weekly get together is shared food. (Dona cooks up a wonderful meal!) One of the things about most diets is they can ostracize you from event with friends. With this protocol I can plan for an event and work around it. I don’t have to sacrifice it.

 So, here I am on Thursday of the second “official” (I played around a bit with delayed eating and pseudo-fasting as soon as I saw the documentary three weeks back) week and really excited. Going out to a movie tonight with my brother and looking forward to enjoying my bottled water.

Cheers!