A Thought in the Middle of the Night….

Last night, at some point during my time in bed, I had a thought unlike any I can remember having in the middle of the night. And I’m quite sure it was, indeed, a thought, that I was asleep before and after but awake during, and that it wasn’t part of a dream.

The thought was that I actually did have a way to relate to the “Golden Flower” energy training program I pursued several years ago at the Institute of Qigong and Integrative Medicine (IQIM).

At the time, I was skeptical of the exercises that comprised the program. I felt little when I did them and couldn’t see any lasting effect.

The exercises involved putting the hands and fingers together in various mudras and then moving them up and down in front of the body to specific locations, thereby moving energy amongst the body’s internal energy centers. This process was said to form lasting energetic connections between the centers. Each exercise was different—different mudras, different patterns of movement to different centers—but they were all followed by a period of meditation where you were to rest your mind at a particular center.

There were doubtless reasons for the mudras used and the pattern of connections made in any given exercise, but it was never spelled out in terms I was able to understand. Nor could I remember, by the time we got to the meditation, which centers we’d connected, and once my hands had stopped moving, I felt nothing.

I stopped taking the seminars a couple of years ago; they seemed to be working for students who were more diligent and/or energetically gifted, but they weren’t working for me.

However, of late I’ve being doing some of the exercises during qigong practices with two friends, and because my friends find value in the exercises, I’ve thought from time to time that perhaps I should knuckle down and give “Golden Flower” another try.

We’re now getting to my mid-night thought about how I might relate to this advanced energy practice. But first:

I know that through practicing taiji, I have developed and continue to develop  energetic connections among the muscles and connective tissues of my physical body. On the surface, this might seem like a “well, duh.” But it took me years of doing both taiji and a taiji-esque qigong form to make or at least to begin to experience those connections as energy-integrated movement.

The qigong form was Taiji Qigong, which comprises 18 Yang-style moves, each repeated several or more times, with minimal footwork. One of the moves, which I know as Dragon Emerging from the Sea, consists of first one fist and then the other pushing straight forward from the waist, turning from being palm up at the waist to being palm down when extended. Now you can do this using and feeling only the muscles of your shoulder and arm—which is how I did it for probably hundreds of practices and how I know many others have also done it.

But one evening I noticed that as my fist twisted and moved forward, muscles in my abdomen were participating in the twist. I found this amazing. Later, I found I could feel the muscles in my leg participating as well. The sensation was subtle and smooth—more like doing qigong than a push-up or a crunch. And yet when I put my free hand on my abdomen, I could feel that my muscles were indeed moving, i.e., it was not my imagination, not some mental energy construct.

A taiji teacher once told me that the goal of taiji is for all of the movement to be integrated, with the lower abdomen energy center known as the dantian as its center. I understood what he meant, but only because I had experienced integration, at least partially if not everywhere all the time; I would not have understood it from his words alone.

My thought during the night—a thought seemingly out of nowhere with no conscious thought before or after—was that connecting energy centers by doing Golden Flower exercises might somehow be like developing energetic connections among muscles and connective tissue by doing taiji. This seemed like a major insight at the time—and actually, though it may sound simple, to “get” something of this nature at any hour of the day or night is a big deal in my book.

Hmmm…. I just paused to think that actually, the muscles and connective tissue of the body must already be connected energetically to some extent or we wouldn’t be able to move. The same must also be true of the energy centers within the body. So doing taiji or qigong is not like introducing people who have never met before; it’s about getting people who already work together to move to a higher, more effective level of collaboration that eventually becomes conscious—well, at least I hope it does because otherwise you’re flying on imagination and faith, and I’m not good at either.

Hmmm again… And what might this higher level of energetic integration be effective for? In the case of a punch issuing from a smooth flow of energy starting at my foot, I guess if I were inclined to engage in street fighting, I would “pack a powerful punch.” However, the promise of the Golden Flower seminars was significantly more grand: enlightenment—or at least some form of greater knowing.

My grasp of what I’m writing about is shaky. But one thing does seem clear—and I think it seemed clear during the middle of the night. If the process of making internal energy center connections is at all akin to the process of making physical body energy connections, one time through an exercise ain’t gonna do it.

One of my friends says that once you have done an exercise and made a connection, your body remembers and continues to process it. But I don’t think so, at least not for me. I think I will probably have to choose one exercise and do that exercise over and over and over again to even hope of having an ah-hah moment like I did with my fist. Perhaps after that, other connections, and/or awareness thereof, would come on board faster, as did happen with physical movement.

For now, what I have is a concept I didn’t have before—and some wonderment that it came to me in the middle of the night….

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Sequels to ‘I Wish I Knew What I Did’

I don’t know what happened, and neither do Word Press’s ‘Happiness Engineers,’ but somehow these sequels to my 5/25/18 post did not get sent to email followers, or at least not to me and a few friends, although they were published on 5/28. So here they are–and if you somehow got them twice, I’m sorry. 

Sequel A: How to begin—except to say that people have been kind, and I am very grateful for kind people who understand and don’t chastise me for being fearful and doubting and ungrateful as I lurch along whatever path I am on.

I told one friend about my altered-state experiences doing taiji and my worries about them, and she reminded me how once, when she was in one of my qigong classes, she felt time stand still. She kept wanting it to happen again, but it never did. She said she’d be very happy to be having the experiences I was worrying about.

And then there’s my wonderful acupuncturist—about whom more later—who said that she would never presume to say that her experiences were like mine, but that she understood what it meant for suddenly everything to become quiet, just quiet.

And my dear friend Karl, who—well, he did chastise me a bit for thinking of my experiences as possible portents of doom instead of as blessings, but we go back far enough that I can accept a bit of chastisement from him because he is always so concerned and sincere.

Plus there were two people who responded through my blog, including Strongmoth (Bella), with whom I connected through my blog more than a year ago and with whom I now correspond off-blog—a correspondence I view as a major benefit of having begun Qi Frontier.

What Bella wrote about the elusive nature of altered states was so beautiful that I want to repeat it here:

“It seems impossible to recreate by will any higher or “magical” experience, and I think it is the intention combined with a desire for a certain fixed outcome that gets in the way.

“On three different occasions I’ve seen seemingly broken-down people walk in the street with such heavy energies around them I was filled with an incredible love, tenderness and empathy, a profound want to ease their suffering. I gathered all my love, my peace of mind, my empathy with a feeling of incredible abundance in my heart and “sent” it from my heart to theirs as I watched them from a distance.

“And on two occasions the people tripped over their own feet, threw their heads back and laughed at the sky! It was so instant and so unbelievable that tears started streaming down my face as I watched them walk off with a new bounce in their steps. On the third occasion the person did not trip, only a wide smile came upon his face and he walked off seemingly with a new calm.

“I have at other times tried to impact tired depressed people the same way by will—who doesn’t want to give weathered people a boost? But I found it impossible, as when it does not come from authentic love and tenderness in the moment and rather springs forth from my ambition and desire for a certain outcome, nothing will happen.”

I know that she is right—although it sure is hard not to desire desirable outcomes.

Above all, however, I am heartened to know that she and other people I trust don’t consider my experiences to be weird or dangerous but instead think it’s great that they are happening.

And I am reminded that I was originally drawn to qigong precisely because my usual ways of thinking about such matters as the difference between objective and subjective reality quickly hit dead ends and tied my “regular” state of consciousness in knots.

So why pull back now? Why, indeed….

And so what if, instead of helping me attain a new level of knowing, all my altered states ever do is make me feel good?

I don’t mind feeling good.

Sequel B: This was going to be Sequel A, but it was overtaken by what actually ended up being Sequel A.

Specifically, I think a shout-out is due to acupuncture, and to my acupuncturist in particular.

I had forgotten, when I wrote the post of a few days ago, that the first of my experiences of being in an altered state when doing taiji occurred the morning after an acupuncture session when my acupuncturist had worked on my back for the second time.

The first time we did an entire session with me face down, I remember getting up off the table, assessing verticality, and thinking, “Oh, wow, I have a back!” My back felt so fluid and alive, and I felt more grounded. The second session was more of the same—and, as I wrote in the previous post, grounding, connecting to earth, seems to be necessary for my mind to let go—or connect to heaven, if I want it to sound more cosmic.

So I am grateful for acupuncture, too, and recommend working with a good acupuncturist to anyone wanting to get in touch with their body – and their soul….

Postscript: And now I am done writing for a time. At this moment, anyway, I am sick of words and trying to analyze my thoughts….

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Sequels to ‘I Wish I Knew What I Did’

Sequel A: How to begin—except to say that people have been kind, and I am very grateful for kind people who understand and don’t chastise me for being fearful and doubting and ungrateful as I lurch along whatever path I am on.

I told one friend about my altered-state experiences doing taiji and my worries about them, and she reminded me how once, when she was in one of my qigong classes, she felt time stand still. She kept wanting it to happen again, but it never did. She said she’d be very happy to be having the experiences I was worrying about.

And then there’s my wonderful acupuncturist—about whom more later—who said that she would never presume to say that her experiences were like mine, but that she understood what it meant for suddenly everything to become quiet, just quiet.

And my dear friend Karl, who—well, he did chastise me a bit for thinking of my experiences as possible portents of doom instead of as blessings, but we go back far enough that I can accept a bit of chastisement from him because he is always so concerned and sincere.

Plus there were two people who responded through my blog, including Strongmoth (Bella), with whom I connected through my blog more than a year ago and with whom I now correspond off-blog—a correspondence I view as a major benefit of having begun Qi Frontier.

What Bella wrote about the elusive nature of altered states was so beautiful that I want to repeat it here:

“It seems impossible to recreate by will any higher or “magical” experience, and I think it is the intention combined with a desire for a certain fixed outcome that gets in the way.

“On three different occasions I’ve seen seemingly broken-down people walk in the street with such heavy energies around them I was filled with an incredible love, tenderness and empathy, a profound want to ease their suffering. I gathered all my love, my peace of mind, my empathy with a feeling of incredible abundance in my heart and “sent” it from my heart to theirs as I watched them from a distance.

“And on two occasions the people tripped over their own feet, threw their heads back and laughed at the sky! It was so instant and so unbelievable that tears started streaming down my face as I watched them walk off with a new bounce in their steps. On the third occasion the person did not trip, only a wide smile came upon his face and he walked off seemingly with a new calm.

“I have at other times tried to impact tired depressed people the same way by will—who doesn’t want to give weathered people a boost? But I found it impossible, as when it does not come from authentic love and tenderness in the moment and rather springs forth from my ambition and desire for a certain outcome, nothing will happen.”

I know that she is right—although it sure is hard not to desire desirable outcomes.

Above all, however, I am heartened to know that she and other people I trust don’t consider my experiences to be weird or dangerous but instead think it’s great that they are happening.

And I am reminded that I was originally drawn to qigong precisely because my usual ways of thinking about such matters as the difference between objective and subjective reality quickly hit dead ends and tied my “regular” state of consciousness in knots.

So why pull back now? Why, indeed….

And so what if, instead of helping me attain a new level of knowing, all my altered states ever do is make me feel good?

I don’t mind feeling good.

Sequel B: This was going to be Sequel A, but it was overtaken by what actually ended up being Sequel A.
Specifically, I think a shout-out is due to acupuncture, and to my acupuncturist in particular.
I had forgotten, when I wrote the post of a few days ago, that the first of my experiences of being in an altered state when doing taiji occurred the morning after an acupuncture session when my acupuncturist had worked on my back for the second time.
The first time we did an entire session with me face down, I remember getting up off the table, assessing verticality, and thinking, “Oh, wow, I have a back!” My back felt so fluid and alive, and I felt more grounded. The second session was more of the same—and, as I wrote in the previous post, grounding, connecting to earth, seems to be necessary for my mind to let go—or connect to heaven, if I want it to sound more cosmic.

So I am grateful for acupuncture, too, and recommend working with a good acupuncturist to anyone wanting to get in touch with their body – and their soul….

Postscript: And now I am done writing for a time. At this moment, anyway, I am sick of words and trying to analyze my thoughts….

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I Wish I Knew What I Did….

A thing happened today, while I was leading my taiji class through the form—one of those things I don’t understand but would oh, so, like to.

When we do the form (Yang-style long form) during the second half of class, I talk. I describe what I am doing, sometimes name the move or point out that we’re in a section of repetition, or make suggestions regarding weight distribution or body alignment. Nothing is scripted. It’s whatever comes into my mind as something that might be helpful to say, depending on who has come to class.

Today, about two-thirds of the way into the form, I felt something shift. I knew I had entered an altered state of consciousness. I relaxed into lightness of body and mind. I felt a quiet within me and around me. I was still talking, but I said less. I felt very good, very complete. After class, I went up to my apartment and did a bit more taiji and then sat on the sofa for a time with my eyes closed. Gradually the state dissolved, and within an hour, I was at my computer going through emails.

I wish I knew how I had reached that state so that I could return to it at will, but I don’t.

I do think one factor may have been that, as I spoke our way through the form, I was emphasizing sinking, sitting down into the hips, relaxing the shoulders, pausing for a moment to really settle into a posture. I was doing this partly for myself, although I had not planned to, and partly for one of the students who had said at our last class, when I talked about relaxing the shoulders, that a therapist once told her she carried all her emotional problems in her shoulders.

I suspect that sinking, relaxing, grounding may have been key to this morning’s experience in part because a couple of weeks ago, about two thirds of the way into doing the form with my long-time Saturday morning taiji partner, I similarly entered a similar state. That time, because nothing had seemed to be going well, I had decided that maybe I should just focus on my feet, and the shifting of weight from one to the other.

Of course, I tried the same approach the following Saturday to absolutely no avail. I guess connecting with earth may be key, but not a guarantee.

One more experience comes to mind, one that happened more than a month ago during a 3-hour meditation session at the convent where I go for Zen-style sitting.

About two-thirds (hmmm… there’s that fraction again)—anyway, about two-thirds of the way into the first half of the session, I entered into a delicious space—soft, quiet, relaxed, accepting. It had the same quality of being separate from my normal awareness as did the two taiji experiences. As I was in it, I knew that it was wonderful and also that it would not last, but that that was OK.

Though I am grateful for all three experiences, in a small way they trouble me because they are akin to some of the more extreme experiences I had two and a half years ago—experiences that a neurologist labeled “spells” when he told me he didn’t think I had epilepsy even though I had had two “unusual” EEGs.

So what is it, what is it, what is it that I am experiencing?

Brain deviance or spiritual growth?

It seems possible that the sole meaning of experiences like the one I had today is that the 3 pound mass of tissue inside my skull has gotten a bit wonky in some of its particulars as a result of my various practices. My brain gets wonky; my perception of reality shifts; I feel good; end of story.

Of course, it is also possible—and, I hope, true—that there is some greater, objective reality that I may somehow be able to access as a result of my various practices.

It would be nice if there was more than just me, my brain and I….

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Spring????

When last I posted, I felt so serene, so hopeful that perhaps I truly was on a spiritual path.

Now, I am anxious, distracted, and frequently in doubt.

Perhaps it is spring, which has sprung with a vengeance where I live, with record temperatures expected all week. Daoism and Traditional Chinese Medicine hold that changes of season can be challenging, and that spring is a time of rising energies, new growth and new endeavors. Perhaps somewhere in the reptilian core of my brain, a voice is saying, “It’s spring, it’s time to procreate!”—while the entire rest of my brain is screeching “You’re 76! No babies for you!” That would certainly throw a person off.

I am continuing all my practices, and sometimes they are wonderful. In particular, I have been learning a Chen-style form called 13 Energies, which was presented as a taiji form but to my mind is simply exquisite qigong. I start doing it and immediately feel the most marvelous flows of energy, particularly grounding energy, which was in such short supply in my taiji and qigong for so long.

But seated meditation…. My mind is busy, busy, busy, sometimes productively, more often obsessively, and a number of times lately I have stopped short of when I intended, thrown off my shawl and said to myself, “That’s it, I’m done.”

Qigong is still settling, but I find myself more often turning to the humble craft of knitting, which I have taken up again. I used to knit complicated patterns, but now I do simple stitches and scarfs. I just want to knit and purl and handle beautiful yarn.

And I have so many questions, so much despair for myself and the world.

There was a major schism in a taiji/qigong school I greatly admired. I don’t know what happened, but I find myself thinking, “If they couldn’t get along, given all the taiji and qigong and meditation they have done, what hope is there for the rest of us.” I know this is probably faulty thinking, and really I don’t feel driven to practice qigong and meditation solely because I want to become a kinder and happier person, but, well, I really would like to become a kinder and happier person.

I have even entertained thoughts that perhaps we mess with our bioenergetic fields at our own peril and delude ourselves as to the value of the results.

And are my fancy-schmancy energy practices any better than my father’s keeping of ledgers of his every financial transaction? My sister recently found and sent me some of those old ledgers. The oldest encompasses his college years. He wrote down every penny he spent, such as what he paid for malted milk or going to the movies on dates with various girls.

He continued to keep income/expense ledgers throughout his life. He had a leather-topped desk in the corner of the dining room in the house I remember best, and he would sit there, working on his ledgers and paying bills. At the time, I thought of it as “his thing,” as I believe my mother did, fuss-budgety but harmless.

Now I think that perhaps his desk was his shrine, and that for him, precise accounting of his financial situation didn’t just provide a feeling of being in control but also was calming and mind-focusing in the same way that doing crossword puzzles, playing computer solitaire, journaling, and knitting are for me—all of which things may lead in the same general direction as more overtly spiritual practices like meditation and qigong. Well, no, maybe I take that back. Qigong definitely does have a different effect on my state of being than balancing my checkbook, although the latter is quite satisfying when the bank and I agree.

Meanwhile, of course, all this personal angst gets ramped up whenever I read the paper. Stories about climate change, the relentless march of technology and the latest Tweets from the White House make me worry that the world is headed for some sort of apocalypse and that my grandchildren are doomed.

Ah, yes…. It’s spring. My mind is fertile, and it’s running amok.

At least tulips are beautiful, and I love the soft, sweet green of unfolding leaves….

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Into Quiet….

In the past few months, something has shifted. I’m not sure what, and not sure why. Nor do I know if I appear changed to other people, but I feel more quiet inside.

I find I often can and want to be still, to sit without moving or wanting to move. I had pretty much abandoned my morning meditation practice, but now I am doing it again and finding it easier to let go of obsessive thinking and return to breathing in and out, observing as my body fills with breath, expanding and then relaxing, expanding, letting go.

I have been drinking Pu-Erh tea first thing every morning for almost three years, but only now am I noticing, as I sit very still, how the caffeine sets my entire body to tingling.

I pause at various times during the day to observe my hands as they cut an apple or to contemplate the flower stalk of my amaryllis bulb as it races upwards to bloom. These are the sorts of moments of mindfulness that I’ve tried to remember to cultivate in the past, but now they just seem to unfold.

Being pulled towards stillness seems natural enough—but it has worried me. I will be 76 in a few weeks. What if my body and mind are becoming quiet because some part of my brain is beginning to malfunction or shut down? Do I feel empty because my brain is, in fact, empty, a shrinking walnut knocking around inside my cranium?

Oh, my, I hope not.

However, as I meditated yesterday morning I realized something that made me feel a whole lot better about my turn towards stillness—that made me, actually, almost giddy.

It occurred to me that the place, or the mental/physical state, to which I feel drawn is akin to something I have experienced for a while now when doing taiji.

When I do the form slowly, with relaxation and focus, my movements become very steady, very smooth—indeed, very still. I feel as if I’m engaged in some kind of flow, riding or possibly creating an almost palpable stream that may curve or change direction but that continues without interruption until I stop moving—or lose focus. It is lovely—and I am certain it is not dementia.

Perhaps I am becoming able to be in that same space, or substance, when I’m not doing taiji. Perhaps I have entered another stage of whatever journey I am on.

Meanwhile, as I’ve been floundering, wondering what is happening to me and where I’m going, I’ve been wanting to find a spiritual home or teacher or companions in meditation, and through a series of coincidences, on New Year’s Eve, I did.

I am now meditating with a group of lay people at a convent in my city. It is an extremely odd place for me to be feeling at home. I am a lifelong agnostic with deep prejudice against the Catholic Church taught to me by my mother, and to her by her parents, who had been disgusted with the hypocrisy they witnessed in the church in Europe.

But so it has happened. The sessions I attend are referred to as contemplative prayer, although the format is pretty much the same as at a Zen Buddhist monastery in Oregon where I once did a number of retreats. Indeed, the nun who leads the group is also a Zen master (and I am not naming her because, by the self-imposed rules of my blog, I would need to ask her to read this before doing so, and I have come to feel that asking people to read what I’ve written for any reason is pretentious).

During our meditation sessions, which are two 20-minute sessions with a period of silent, meditative walking in between, we can ask to have a consultation with the leader in a separate room, as was done in Oregon. Last week, she said to me, as she had said before to the group, that one might choose to use the word God, or life force, or some other term, but that it is all the same, it is all the spark of life that flows through us—but somehow, as she said it to me as we sat face to face, my tears welled up.

“You’ve felt it,” she said. “Yes,” I said, “perhaps I have.”

Felt what? Now I’m not sure. I think my tears may have come because, as she spoke of that something flowing through us, her hands depicted that flow by moving outwards from her body—and because I was sitting across from her, they moved towards me. It wasn’t that I felt that she, personally, was giving me something, but that I felt that I have been given something the various times I’ve had ah-hah moments in qigong.

When those moments have happened, I have always felt awed—and grateful. Perhaps that is what worship is about. There’s a book about Chinese medicine titled “The Web That Has No Weaver.” Perhaps, at least for me, this flow of life is the gift that has no giver.

I don’t have any idea how this pull to quiet is going to turn out, but I feel an unaccustomed acceptance of not knowing. For now, I’m just going to sit and breathe….

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Caught Between a Rock and a Flute

Well, I’ve got the headline. It’s catchy enough, at least if people get the reference to “rock and a hard place,” and it does say something reasonably accurate about my life.

So I guess I’ve got to write the post.

First, the part about the rock. The rock is actually a hand-polished slab of dark green jade which I bought as a 50th birthday present for a good friend with whom I practice qigong.

When I bought it, I held it and thought I could feel its energy, and my friend and the third member of our practice trio thought they could, too, so my friend has been bringing it to our practice sessions in my apartment.

She lays it on the floor in the center of our triangle, and at some point during our session, my cat will get up from her heated cat bed and come over to nuzzle the rock. She’ll stretch herself out and rub her head against it. Once she sat on it as if she hoped it might hatch.

Because she will not do this with any of the other rocks I have offered her, I have concluded that the rock does have some special energetic quality. In other words, qi is! Even in rocks!

Meanwhile, though I continue to practice taiji and qigong, my fervor has abated. This may be a good thing, at least for the sake of qigong, where wanting too much and trying too hard tend to bring a person very little. (Sigh. This is sadly true in many aspects of life, including interpersonal relationships. The needier you are, the less you get.)

But I digress.

The thing that has been intruding on my fervor and my “discretionary time” is learning to play the Native American-style flute. A man who makes these flutes, plays them and teaches others to play moved into the community where I live, and about a year ago I bought one from him and committed to learning to play it.

I wanted a musical voice, and since I can no longer sing—I can’t hold pitch, and singing hurts my throat—I liked the idea of being able to sing through an instrument. Native American flutes can produce achingly exquisite sound, and they are easier to make sound good than, say, a cello, which I would also love to be able to play. (This isn’t to say that it’s easy to play a Native American flute really well or that, after a year, I believe I play really well—but I’m about to the point that I really enjoy playing and like what I hear when I do.)

Nowadays, most Native American flutes have six holes and are tuned to a pentatonic minor key. You can play in other keys on, say, a G minor flute, but most likely you’ll want to get a number of flutes in different keys. A bass E flute is a very different instrument from, say, a high C flute, just as a tuba is different from a piccolo. The pitches are different, but so is the quality of the sound.

Which brings us to my newest flute, a D# minor contrabass. It is a very large flute—43 inches with a 1 and ¾-inch bore—and it has a very deep voice. It is also difficult to play, despite having the mouthpiece on the side instead of the end so that you can reach the sound holes, because the sound holes are large and far apart. I am only able to span and cover the holes, and that just barely, because it turns out that I have a peasant hand. My fingers aren’t particularly long, but they are sturdy, and, perhaps more important, my palms are broad.

I cannot play this D# minor flute lyrically, because it requires too much breath to connect very many notes, but it has great rhythmic and percussive potential. However, the best part is the strong, deep vibrations which I feel throughout my body as I hold the flute across my chest and play it. I have started creating pieces of songs that are based on playing the lowest, most rumbly note like a heartbeat, lub-dub, lub-dub, then leaving that note for a pattern of other notes but returning again, and again, lub-dub, lub-dub.

I may now just have two hobbies, qigong and flute, but I am liking to think, particularly as I explore this new flute, that in the end the energy of the sounds I produce and feel through playing flute will connect with the energy that I experience as qi when I do qigong.

…and with the energy my cat feels from the piece of jade.

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