Sunday, 25 November 2012

Fire and Water Metaphors in Mindfulness Practice - Part 1: Introduction & The Ocean

"to picture the Tao in the world imagine rivers and the sea" - LaoZi, DaoDeJing, 32.5


Quantum physics shows us that we can reduce everything in existence down to patterns of flowing energy - apparently set in motion by the Big Bang, or perhaps having always been in motion. This flowing energy  'condenses' in certain places to form all the variety of phenomena we see - the stars, clouds, mountains, oceans, and ourselves. The ancient Chinese Daoists considered this massive, ungraspable system - the universe in it's entirety -  the Dao.

Fragment of the Nine Dragon Scroll, China 1244 CE.
Although we humans have left the underwater environments in which our early ancestors thrived, we remain restricted to fluid atmospheres - we breathe and move through the air flowing around and within us in a similar way to how a shrimp breathes and moves through flowing water. Beyond the labels of 'air' and 'water', however, on the quantum energy level, shrimp and humans both move (or 'swim') through the flowing, energetic essence of the universe. In this sense, all organisms can be thought of as 'swimmers in the Dao'. The Chinese Chán (Zen) Buddhist master Xūyún (1840-1959) told the story of a lay Zen practitioner apparently using this idea when he wrote:
"Layman Pang had submerged himself in the sutras and one day he found that he, too, was in over his head. He hadn't learned to swim yet. On that day, he stormed out of his monastery-hut and, in abject frustration complained to his wife, "Difficult! Difficult! Difficult! Trying to grasp so many facts is like trying to store sesame seeds in the leaves of a tree top!"
His wife retorted, "Easy! Easy! Easy! You've been studying words, but I study the grass and find the Buddha Self reflected in every drop of dew."
Now, Layman Pang's daughter, Ling Zhao, was listening to this verbal splashing, so she went swimming by. "Two old people foolishly chattering!" she called."
A traditional Chinese ink painting of shrimp.
The idea of continuing activity in a focused and mindful way is one of the strongest themes at the heart of mindfulness practice. American Zen teacher, Charlotte Joko Beck,  in the first few pages of her book Nothing Special - Living Zen (1995), draws our attention to our transient, flowing nature thus, p3-4:
"We are rather like whirlpools in the river of life. In flowing forward, a river or stream may hit rocks, branches, or irregularities in the ground, causing whirlpools to spring up spontaneously here and there. Water entering one whirlpool quickly passes through and rejoins the river, eventually joining another whirlpool and moving on. Though for short periods it seems to be distinguishable as a separate event, the water in the whirlpools is just the river itself. The stability of a whirlpool is only temporary. The energy of the river of life forms living things—a human being, a cat or dog, trees and plants—then what held the whirlpool in place is itself altered, and the whirlpool is swept away, reentering the larger flow.[...] What we can best do for ourselves and for life is to keep the water in our whirlpool rushing and clear so that it is just flowing in and flowing out. When it gets all clogged up, we create troubles—mental, physical, spiritual. We serve other whirlpools best if the water that enters ours is free to rush through and move on easily and quickly to whatever else needs to be stirred. [...] By being protective and anxious, clinging to our assets, we clog up our lives. Water that should be rushing in and out, so it can serve, becomes stagnant. A whirlpool that puts up a dam around itself and shuts itself off from the river becomes stagnant and loses its vitality."

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/db/Messier51_sRGB.jpg/250px-Messier51_sRGB.jpg
A Whirlpool Galaxy.
Interestingly, this comparison between all phenomena and the mechanisms of water was apparently at the core of the world-view belonging to the first famous Greek philosopher; Thales of Miletus.

Water seems insufficient to cater for all the general aspects of the universe, however, in the sense that the flowing energy of the universe can manifest as intense heat - our Sun is a perfect example of that. Heat is not a property that water is ever considered to have without having made contact with some other force or element. Our bodies, although mostly made of water, are warm-blooded, and the neurons in our brain 'fire' with electrical activity. The antagonistic elemental force which appears to heat and boil the 'waters of the Dao' is therefore fire. Together, the elements of fire and water - often referenced within Daoism as embodying yang and yin respectively - famously interact to create the dynamic universe.
Harnessing fire apparently revolutionized and fundamentally changed the way humans lived. A recent news article: Scientists find clue to human evolution's burning question (2012) states:
"Richard Wrangham, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University, has argued that the invention of cooking split the ancestors of humans from the evolutionary path that went on to include modern gorillas and chimpanzees. Cooking allowed our ancestors to develop bigger brains and, in his hypothesis, is the key reason modern humans emerged. The controlled use of fire, according to Wrangham, was a more important milestone in human evolution than the invention of agriculture or eating meat."
Fire may not only have brought us warmth, light, cooked vegetables, and new weapons, however. Mindfulness teacher Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book Full Catastrophe Living (2005), posits, p356:
"Sitting around fires at night, their only sources of heat and light, had a way of slowing people down-it was calming as well as warming. Staring into the flames and the embers, the mind could focus on the fire, always different, yet always the same. People could watch it moment by moment and night after night, month after month, year after year, through the seasons and see time stand still in the fire. Perhaps the ritual of sitting around fires was mankind's first experience of meditation."
 http://imgix.8tracks.com/mix_covers/000/995/537/9480.original.jpg?fm=jpg&q=65&sharp=15&vib=10&

Fire, within us, however, has often not had such positive connotations. The 'burning' of the passions like an intense fiery hell is something everyone seems to be familiar with. Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book The Heart of Buddha's Teaching (1998), writes, p79:
"The fire of anger burns in us day and night and causes us to suffer — even more than the one at whom we are angry. When anger is absent, we feel light and free."
In another of his books, Understanding Our Mind (2001), Thich Nhat Hanh talks of how it is ourselves who light these fires, p3:
"Early Buddhist texts talk about these three realms of samsaric existence as being like a “house on fire.” The three realms are burning, and it is we who light the fire through the false perceptions of our consciousness. The purpose of Buddhist practice is to transform the suffering of these realms and stages."
Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) being attacked by the flames of Mara as he sat meditating.
Once we are adept at skillfully transforming this intense suffering into peaceful joy - to the point we do it subconsciously, then any unnecessary painful burning inside us is extinguished, while any necessary burning pain is accepted as a managable part of life. Thich Nhat Hanh relates this in The Heart of Buddha's Teaching, p140:
"Nirvana means pacifying, silencing, or extinguishing the fire of suffering."
We must understand how this fire within us is kindled and flares up, and once we know it's nature, we are no longer perturbed by it - outside or inside, and we can avoid pouring any extra fuel on destructive habits which may be burning out of control.

It seems this peace a human being can make with the intense burning of being - some of it inescapable - can reach incredibly deep levels. This is a photograph of the Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức burning himself alive in demonstration while meditating in1963:


 http://www.thewitness.org/archive/mayjune2003/img/BurningMonk.jpg

Making peace with the necessary fires which blaze up in and around us requires a deep trust in nature - that everything is natural and in harmony with the universe, and that there is a positive side to any seemingly destructive event outside of our control. As Charolotte Joko Beck writes in her book Everyday Zen (1997), p110:
"Destruction is necessary. A good forest fire is necessary. The way we interfere with forest fires may not be a good thing. Without destruction, there could be no new life; and the wonder of life, the constant change, could not be. We must live and die. And this process is perfection itself."
It is not only fire which is destructive of course; water can be incredibly damaging - for example in the form of a Tsunami, or even as an erosive force. Dr Kabat-Zinn, in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are (2004), writes, p142:
"We know that the water principle is every bit as elemental as rock, and that its nature is stronger than rock in the sense that water wears down rock."

In the same way that a human can experience aging and sickness, family members dying, childbirth, and many other natural and necessary challenging phenomena as a burning pain, it seems the thoughts and desires we experience can be like the turbulent waves on the surface of the sea. Again; the way mindfulness teachers have taught us to deal with this situation is not to extinguish the suffering through mental effort, but to accept what is necessary and find the peaceful potential hidden within it. As the author of Meditation for Dummies (2006) states, p36:
"you can picture life as an ocean, with the constant ups and downs you experience as the waves that churn and roil on the water’s surface. When you meditate, you dive beneath the surface to a quiet place where the water is calmer and more consistent."
In the book Mindfulness for Dummies (2010), this theme is also present, p71:
"The waves aren’t bad – they’re just part of the ocean. Going further down, the waves of doing rest on the still waters of being... Being is your sense of who you are. Being is characterised as a state of acceptance, a willingness to be with whatever is. Being is tranquil, still and grounding."



The waves will never stop as they are a natural feature of our existence. Thich Nhat Hanh describes this situation in Understanding Our Mind, p147:
"five consciousnesses are based on the sixth consciousness, mind consciousness. They manifest either separately or together with mind consciousness like waves rising up from the ocean. Mind consciousness is like water and the five sense consciousnesses are like waves upon the water."
This is further supported in more simple language in the book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995) by Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Syzuki, p35:
"Even though waves arise, the essence of your mind is pure; it is just like clear water with a few waves. Actually water always has waves. Waves are the practice of the water.. To speak of waves apart from water or water apart from waves is a delusion. Water and waves are one."

http://verybestphotos.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Amazing-Ocean-Waves-Photo-Canary-Islands-655x420.jpg


The essence of the practice relating to these 'ocean waves' seems to be put most clearly by Dr. Kabat-Zinn in Full Catastrophe Living, p52-53:
"In meditation the breath functions as an anchor for our attention. Tuning to it anywhere we feel it in the body allows us to drop below the surface agitations of the mind into relaxation, calmness, and stability. The agitation is still at the surface just as the waves are on the surface of the water. But we are out of the wind and protected from their buffeting action and their tension-producing effects when we shift our attention to the breath for a moment or two. This is an extremely effective way of locating a peaceful center within yourself. It enhances the overall stability of your mind."



As one practices this simple yet difficult method, one's acceptance of the necessary pains of life can increase, and transformation can take place.

Water can purify and make way for new growth, and so can fire if one skillfully harnesses these respective elements in one's practice. Water seems to have an advantage over fire for us, however, due to it's ability to be handled without bringin harm, and it's nature to accept anything within it's being. These properties of water are highlighted in a story where the Buddha's disciple Shariputra demonstrated his understanding, in Thich Nhat Hanh's The Heart of Buddha's Teachings, p200:
"[Shariputra said to the Buddha:] I have learned the lesson you offered to Rahula to practice like water. Whether someone pours a fragrant substance or an unclean substance into the water, the water receives them all equally without grasping or aversion. Water is immense and flowing and has the capacity to receive, contain, transform, and purify all these things." 
 

Understanding these teachings as a metaphor is not enough, however, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes in The Sun My Heart (1988), we must come to truly realize and know the watery Dao which incorporates our being so that we can live consciously connected to it at all times, p133:
"Most people view themselves as waves and forget that they are also water. They are used to living in birth-and-death, and they forget about no-birth-and-no-death. A wave also lives the life of water, and we also live the life of no-birth-no-death. We only need to know that we are living the life of no-birth-nodeath. All is in the word "know." To know is to realize. Realization is mindfulness. All the work of meditation is aimed at awakening us in order to know one and only one thing: birth and death can never touch us in any way whatsoever."
As we continue to practice being more water-like in our mindful lives, we can begin to see new growth appearing, as if our water has encouraged seeds of hidden joy within us to germinate and take root. Thich Nhat Hanh uses this metaphor in Understanding Our Mind, p44/42:
"Mindfulness is the water that nourishes the bodhi seed, the seed of awakening. If in our daily lives we practice mindfulness in order to look deeply at things, one day Right View will bloom like a flower permanently and not just from time to time in our mind consciousness." 
"In order to grow, mindfulness needs nourishment. We all have seeds of mindfulness, loving kindness, understanding, and joy in us. These seeds can become beautiful flowers if we can learn how to transform the garbage of our hatred, discrimination, despair, and anger."
Transformation cannot happen in water alone, however - for that to happen we need to add something more reactive to the mix, and so next we will turn to the teachings on the positive role of the fire element in mindfulness practice  ....   in Part 2.

Sunset from Ta Keo Temple - taken by the author during a visit to Angkor Wat complex, Cambodia, 2009.

Monday, 19 November 2012

From heart to hand: A traditional Chinese concept

"It is believed that, since calligraphy is a highly individualized art, writing offers a glimpse of the heart." - Wendan Li, Chinese Writing & Calligraphy (University of Hawai‘i Press. 2009), p181
"If our heart is light and open, unfettered by internal formations, the world is beautiful. True mind conditions the world of suchness and happiness, because it is not caught in attachment." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Understanding Our Mind (2001), p40.
"In Eastern language, the word for mind and heart is often the same word, which is heartfulness. ... Heartfulness is giving attention to anything that you can perceive with a sense of warmth" - Shamash Alidina, Mindfulness for Dummies (2010), p60.

In my previous post, The Dao of Chinese Insight Calligraphy, I mentioned that the Chinese considered heart and mind to be one thingXīn (心).

http://www.onmarkproductions.com/assets/images/story_calligraphy_heart.jpg
A 17th Century Japanese Zen Calligraphy piece - the large character is the word for heart/mind; Xīn (心).
There is an ancient Chinese 4 character idiom (Chengyu 成语) about the manifestation of the human heart  inspired by the Daoist Classic JuangZi, which goes as follows:
"得心应手" (dé xīn yìng shǒu) - "From heart to hand"
My Insight Calligraphy teacher here in Beijing, Paul Wang, told me today that this idiom comes from JuangZi, Chapter 13: The Way of Heaven, where a Duke demands a demonstration of a wood-worker's wisdom. The wood-worker says: 
"When I chisel a wheel, if the blows of the mallet are too gentle, the chisel slides and won't take hold. But if they're too hard, it bites in and won't budge. Not too gentle, not too hard - you can get it in your hand and feel it in your mind. You can't put it into words, and yet there's a knack to it somehow."
The inscription on this Chinese calligraphy brush reads: "From heart to hand" - a Chinese idiom inspired by the Daoist Classic text JuangZi.
Paul said that the idiom is used to describe the state of understanding one thing very well in the sense that one can manifest it's essence very skillfully. This emphasis on skill allowing the positive contents of a person's heart to be expressed appears to have an intimate relationship with mindfulness practice. Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh includes in his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness (1987), in the Sutra Section: The Foundation of Mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutta), how the Buddha compared the skill of a wood-turner to a monk being mindful of his breath, p112-113:
"Just as a skillful turner or turner's apprentice, making a long turn, knows "I am making a long turn," or making a short turn, knows, "I am making a short turn," just so the monk, breathing in a long breath, knows "I am breathing in a long breath"; breathing out a long breath, knows "I am breathing out a long breath"
The art of Chinese calligraphy writing has a long-standing relationship with this idea of honing deep skills - creative skills which have the potential to spontaneously render the heart in a true and highly expressive way. As Wendan Li, author of  Chinese Writing & Calligraphy, writes, p17:
"the complex internal structure of Chinese characters and the unique writing instruments have allowed ample space in multiple dimensions for Chinese calligraphy to develop into a fine art whose core is deeply personal, heartfelt expression."
A little later, Li states what seems to be the ideal of the calligrapher accomplishing his task, p27:
"the artist pours out heart and soul onto a piece of paper."

A Chinese Calligraphy piece of the character for heart/mind - Xīn (心).
The importance of being able to manifest and render the human heart in society seemed to be considered the most noble of practices in ancient China - to the point that artistry and morality became intimately entwined. Wendan Li illustrates such a situation when he speaks of a master calligrapher of the Tang dynasty, Liǔ Gōngquán 柳公权 (778–865), p135:
"he was a devout Buddhist. His Buddhist practice surely influenced his philosophy of both life and calligraphy, particularly his emphasis on the necessity of forming a strong moral character as a basis for artistic creation. Once, when asked by Emperor Muzong of the Tang how to write upright characters, Liu responded that it depends on the mind of the writer. When a person sets the purpose of his life upright, he will be able to write upright characters. Since then, Liu’s saying “An upright mind for an upright brush” (心正笔正 xīn-zhèng-bıˇ-zhèng) has been central to the Chinese emphasis on forming a strong moral character as the basis for artistic creation."
Here is a video of myself painting the Chinese character Xīn (心) in the ancient cursive zhāngcǎo (章草) script:


video




A comparison of Xīn (心) written by the author (left, from the above video) with his teacher's, Paul Wang (right). Chinese ancient cursive zhāngcǎo calligraphy script. 

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Transforming Unhealthy Habits into Peaceful Enjoyment

"A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live." - British Philosopher Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness (1930), p68.
"We see that we are violent, prejudiced, and selfish. We are all those things because a conditioned life based on false thinking leads to these states. Human beings are basically good, kind, and compassionate, but it takes hard digging to uncover that buried jewel." - Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen, Chapter: Beginning Zen Practice, p7.
"We have habits. We have good habits and we have bad habits, and the practice of Buddhist meditation is to recognize our habits, in the form of energies, and to transform them or nourish them." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Dharma Talk: Taking Good Care of Our Habit Energies
What if humans lost all their accumulated culture? How would we survive? It seems we are well equipped with reflexive reactions which will take care of us - fight, flee, hunt, mate, etc. These instincts would allow us to protect and feed ourselves, as well as pass on our DNA. It also appears, however, that they can now get in the way of our more civilised intentions. As Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn relates in his Dharma talk; Taking Good Care of Our Habit Energies, p7:
"the habit of walking very quickly, running. That habit is rooted very deeply in our daily life. Maybe our ancestors used to walk very quickly and they have transmitted to us that way of walking. [...] there is a kind of energy pushing us to run, to run all our life, searching for a time, a place, when happiness is possible. So we understand why we get caught in that kind of habit, always running. We are determined to stop, to transform that habit, and we learn how to make steps that can allow us to touch life deeply in each moment."
In our modern, more enlightened world, just because one's hands curl into fists when one is angry, it does not mean one should hit somebody - if ever. In the same way, it seems our reflexive desires do not necessarily mean we need to engage in consumption or indulgence. When potentially destructive reflexive behaviours arise, we can work with them in order to maintain a positive direction. Thich Nhat Hahn goes on to say, p8:
"the practice is to recognize the old habit, the negative habit, the bad habit, to recognize the energy of our habits and smile to them. And also to cultivate the new habit, the good habit, until the new habit begins to produce energy. When we have the new kind of energy, we don’t have to make any effort, we just enjoy listening to the bell, we just enjoy walking slowly, we just enjoy eating in silence, because we like it. We get the nourishment, the joy, of doing so. Suddenly, the practice becomes pleasant, joyful, nourishing."

A calligraphy piece by Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh rendered in wood and photographed by the author at Từ Hiếu Temple (where Thich Nhat Hanh began studying at age 16) near Huế, Vietnam.
It seems it is important to recognize the safety systems built into our biology in order to successfully navigate certain social and challenging environments. Mindfulness MBSR teacher Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, speaks of our instinctive biology in his book Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p369:
"...the deeply automatic impulse for fight-or-flight influences our behavior even when our lives are not in danger. When we feel that our interests or our social status is threatened, we are capable of reacting unconsciously to protect or defend our position before we know what we are doing. Usually this behavior compounds our problems by increasing the level of conflict. Or alternatively, we might act submissively.  When we do, it is often at the expense of our own views, feelings, and self-respect. But since we also have the ability to reflect, think, and be aware, we have a range of other options available to us that go well beyond our most unconscious and deeply ingrained instincts. But we need purposefully to cultivate these options. They don't just magically surface..."
Smiling to our biological instincts - knowing they are there to preserve human life if cultural catastrophes occur - apparently incorporates them into our being without repressing them, and makes us more whole. Kabat-Zinn, in his introduction to Full Catastrophe Living, says of this process, p11-12:
"We routinely and unknowingly waste enormous amounts of energy in reacting automatically and unconsciously to the outside world and to our own inner experiences. Cultivating mindfulness means learning to tap and focus our own wasted energies. In doing so, we learn to calm down enough to enter and dwell in states of deep relaxation."
What joyful activity can take place, then, when one's less civilised instincts are no longer being indulged? Is it all just walking slowly and eating in silence? It seems that, beyond the normal daily routines and formal mindful meditations, there are three main activities which can easily engage people during their free time, and these are:
  • cultivating other living organisms
  • cultivating artistic skills
  • cultivating community.

The author holding a papaya fruit on a tree surrounded by tomato plants in grow bags in his partner's parents garden in Sri Lanka, 2011.
It seems these activities take place in most peoples' lives in one way or another; caring for pets, photography, or supporting one's older family members could probably represent an example of each.

Of course these activities are not mindful practices in themselves, but when practiced with mindfulness, it seems they have the potential to generate peaceful enjoyment - especially if the products of cultivation are peaceful in themselves. For this reason I tend to choose to care for tropical fish over a dog, or play the flute over a drumkit. When socialising, I tend to go for walks in the countryside or sit in a teahouse, rather than spend time in a pub atmosphere.

A traditional Chinese painting of Chrysanthemums.
It seems there are many activities and phenomena which can be peacefully enjoyed without one's life turning into what could be imagined as a stark desert of lonely numbness. Even if there are few or no people practicing mindfulness in one's vicinity, there are always plants and animals waiting to join one. Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Peace is Every Step, p14:
"...everything around you is keeping your smile for you. You don’t need to feel isolated. You only have to open yourself to the support that is all around you, and in you. Like the friend who saw that her smile was being kept by the dandelion, you can breathe in awareness, and your smile will return."
A cat at Vietnamese Zen Community Plum Village, France, which sat with the author in the dining hall upon arrival in February 2010.
Ultimately it is our mindfulness practice that brings peaceful joy into our lives, and not our community, our nurturing of plants and animals, or honing of traditional artistic skills. Mindfulness practice does require one to nurture and cultivate mindfulness as a skill, however, and this becomes an art in itself; expressed through one's actions and behaviours. As the transcendentalist author David Henry Thoreau wrote in his book Walden:
"I know of no more encouraging fact
than the unquestionable ability of man
to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.
It is something to be able to paint a particular picture,
or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful;
but it is far more glorious to carve and paint
the very atmosphere and medium though which we look. ...
To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts."
 Thich Nhat Hanh emphasises this position in his book Understanding Our Mind, when he writes, p366:
"If we are in a good environment, we get the “perfume” of the good environment. If we are in an unwholesome environment, we get the “perfume” of an unwholesome environment. Any action of body, speech, or mind can be the result of a habit energy. Some habit energies have taken thousands of years to form. Our heritage is not only what we have done in the past, but what we are doing in the present. Every word we speak and every act we perform will determine how we are. We know that if we want to come to a place of happiness and light, we must develop good habits. The best habit is the practice of mindfulness. If we live with a Sangha that practices mindfulness, we will get the perfume of mindfulness."

A lake walkway photographed by the author at Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh's old monastery - Từ Hiếu Temple near Huế, Vietnam, Feb 2009.
Bertrand Russell says of quiet lives, in The Conquest of Happiness, p64:
"Altogether it will be found that a quiet life is characteristic of great men, and that their pleasures have not been of the sort that would look exciting to the outward eye."

Monday, 5 November 2012

YiQuan: Standing mindfully in Nature (ZhanZhuang 站樁)

"Lift and support Heaven and Earth,
Grasp Yin and Yang,
Breathing deeply air,
Stand and meditate profoundly,
(All) muscles (unified) as one."
- Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon (Huángdì Nèijīng 黄帝内经) ~200BC, GuTianZhenLun.
"Imagine a nebulous thing here before Heaven and Earth silent and elusive it stands alone not wavering it travels everywhere unharmed it could be the mother of us all" - Daoist Sage LaoZi, DaoDeJing (~400BC), Chapter 25.
"When practicing, you should focus your mind, standing silent in face of the space of universe. Inside there should be clear emptiness, outside there should be harmony, balance, roundness. At the same time you should achieve pleasant mood, get rid of disturbing thoughts and feelings, calm your breath, gently cultivating internal and external." - YiQuan Founder Wang XiangZhai, ZhanZhuang: A form of health cultivation and therapy (2004), p14.
YiQuan founder Master Wang XiangZhai.
The first 'health' posture of the martial art and calisthenic system called YiQuan straight away gives one a sense of what the essence of YiQuan standing meditation/yoga is about. Although one later begins to use visualisations to tap into and detect various body sensations, the intention behind the practice is always the same. Master Wang Xiangzhai wrote of the early stages:
"Beginners, no matter which posture they practice, should start from relaxation and only later use other kinds of mind activity." - ZhanZhuang: A form of health cultivation and therapy (2004), p28

The author standing in the basic health posture in a park in snowy Beijing.
The first posture I learnt is described in the following way by Master Wang, in 'ZhanZhuang', p24:
"Palms are at level slightly below navel. Insides of palms directed upward. Arms as if embracing a big balloon." 
This sensation of holding a balloon has also been described as holding a biological cell - it has a kind of squashy, springy 'turgidity'. This sensation can be felt more tangible between the palms in the posture - often described as a kind of elasticity of the joints and a kind of friction against the air. The palms holding a cell, the arms holding a cell, and all the other limbs of the body taking on the same feeling, all the while being made mostly of cells creates a kind of structural harmony that the body relaxes into. Wang XiangZhai describes this poetically as "bathing in nature" in ZhanZhuang, p13:
"Mind should embrace the whole and the internal. A part should not disturb the unity of the whole. External movement should not spoil internal harmony. Whole body should be naturally relaxed and light, you should keep pleasant mood, as if taking a bath in the great bathroom of nature".

Master Wang Xiangzhai's daughter.
A common metaphor for the YiQuan standing postures is a tree or bamboo stems. Master Wang writes about how to stand like a tree in 'ZhanZhuang' (2004), p28:
"Rooting. Imagine that you are as if a thousand years old tree, standing stable, as if roots of the tree were reaching deep under ground. Hurricane will not move you." 
As such, when we stand in the courtyard at TaoLin Yiquan Academy being adjusted and 'shaped' by Master Cui Rui Bin or his senior students, we are like trees in a Bonsai garden:


We patiently study our biology as we stand, and emphasize what we have in common with other living organisms. This allows us to harmonize with our natural environment and gain an understanding of how to act more efficiently as a whole physical unit. Master Wang Xiangzhai describes this process in Essence of Combat Science (2004), thus, p20:
 "The art of cultivating life is actually simple, human nature is taking pleasure from free action, natural potential is revealed then. Each morning just stand in place with fresh air, don't use any methods just make your all joints bend slightly, think that you are standing in the great space of universe, slowly experience what's happening, blood is flowing inside body, between body and outside space there is some slight, elastic tension, this is what is called "spirit as if swimming". You should feel comfort in mind and body, you not only are not limited, but gradually there comes feeling of being tuned in with the whole nature." 
When Master Cui Ruibin observes and adjusts us, he uses a model as a reference in order to correct any mistakes in our form just like a Bonsai gardener uses certain established preferred shapes for the trees he is working on.

Master Cui Ruibin observing the author practicing at Taolin YiQuan Academy. The middle and right-hand pictures are of Master Cui in his younger days.

A Bonsai enthusiast wiring up a tree to conform to an ideal shape.
As great as the metaphor of standing like a tree is, it seems there is an organism that displays more of the properties of YiQuan standing postures (ZhanZhuang) than a tree does, and that is the sponge. As I mentioned in my previous post, Mindful Sitting: Joy in Nature, sponges are one of our most ancient ancestors and I find them very inspiring for meditation - providing a seamless biological link between humans and the planet we live on. This time, however, the physical construction and behaviour of sponges becomes the inspiration. This video shows how a sponge 'works':


A seasponge is like one giant cell made out of many smaller cells, and absorbs nutrients through it's pores. Master Wang Xiangzhai's teachings advise one to practice by similarly 'opening one's pores' as follows, in ZhanZhuang: A form of health cultivation and therapy (2004), p14:
"All pores of your skin are as if opening, there appears feeling as if wind was moving freely through them, through your body, inside and outside." 
The watery environment of a sponge can be imagined, as Wang describes in ZhanZhuang, p28:
"Standing in water. Imagine you are standing in water. Its temperature gives you comfortable feeling. Water is lightly hitting your body from different sides and your body is naturally following the movement of water."
The author standing like a sponge in a park in Beijing.
And finally, the upright, rooted, spongy elastic body of our most ancient underwater ancestor can be emulated thus:
"Body should be naturally erect, in a relaxed and elastic way. Spine should be naturally straight. All joints should be bent. You should guard emptiness and clearness, focus mind and calm breath. Arms rounded, armpits half open." - Wang XiangZhai, ZhanZhuang: A form of health cultivation and therapy (2004), p18
Gently breathing and opening with the whole body, in this way it seems one can remain physically healthy in harmony with nature even into old age. The self-defense potential, if invested in, is a convenient by-product also, of course.