Where Am I Anyway?

I’m still at it. Still dancing around qigong, still trying to figure out where I am and where I might be going.

Almost two months ago, I was asked by someone who responded to my post about depression  if I had lost faith in qigong. My answer is attached to that post, but I’m going to bring it forward here. I said that my faith in qigong was at very low ebb—and now I’ll pick up with the rest of what I wrote then:

I probably wanted far more than qigong could ever deliver—and wanting too much, I am told, and believe, pretty much assures that you will get very little.

“I had believed that qigong could resolve various of my health issues, but I no longer expect that to happen. In my qigong community, one woman has survived lung cancer that was predicted to kill her in something like six months, and she attributes her survival in large part to qigong. Another woman, an ardent practitioner and teacher, developed lung cancer and was dead within months. True, she was a smoker, where the other woman was not. But still, qigong didn’t protect her and qigong didn’t save her.

“My very darkest thought about qigong goes back to a margarine commercial from the 1970s with the line ‘It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.’ I consider that quite possibly when I am doing qigong, I am ‘fooling Mother Nature’ by manipulating my bioelectric field. Should I be doing this? I have no idea how the energetic effects of qigong compare to the energetic effects of using my cell phone or walking across a parking lot where people are using invisible energy waves to remotely lock or unlock their cars. I can’t feel the latter things, but I can feel something when I do qigong.

“I have thought that perhaps the effects of qigong are similar to the effects of other types of meditation. Meditation does change the brain and also how one feels and acts in the world, although I know enough meditators to know it’s slow going, and I’ve known of people who live in Zen monasteries and take anti-depressants.

“I do still hope for personal change from qigong. And, well, in truth, I still hope for a whole lot more. I still want to understand, to know, what existence is all about. Through qigong, I have had experiences I would not have believed possible—or, more precisely, that I had no concept of. What more will I learn? I don’t know. I am impatient. Will learning more make me happy, or satisfied, or whole? I don’t know.”

Since the beginning of March, when I wrote the above, I have been very busy in other sectors of my life and haven’t done much qigong. In truth, I haven’t made much effort to find the time to do qigong. I have a cell phone app that lets me check off when I have done something, and I used to try to check off more than half a dozen practices related to qigong and taiji every day. I don’t do that anymore.

In the last week, I’ve felt myself drawn to seated meditation again. I just sit and breathe and feel my breath filling my body, making it swell and tingle and come alive. Sometimes I’ll focus on particular energy centers or parts of my body and connecting them in various ways. When my mind wanders, as it regularly does, I do find it easier to say, “Oh, well….” and get back to my breath, which, wouldn’t you know, has continued of its own accord while part of me was away–and then I immediately fall back into total body energetic awareness.

I do an hour of Yi Ren Qigong with friends once a week, but other days, if I do qigong at all, I do either Damo Mitchell’s Wu Xing qigong exercises, which are so much simpler than the Yi Ren Qigong exercises, or the Shibashi Taiji Qigong I used to teach.

Also in early March, when I wrote the passage I quoted above, I quit the taiji school I had been going to for more than a year. I had tried to do taiji their way but concluded I couldn’t because of my balance issues—and also that I really didn’t want to. I will always do taiji, but I am trying to enjoy it again, to be aware of my alignments and how energy is moving in my body without worrying too much about whether I’m getting some of the details wrong. I don’t even push myself to do the whole form, which takes me a bit over half an hour. I quit when it starts feeling like I’m doing it for the sake of getting it done.

Today I went for a walk during a sun break between spring rains and paused in a small neighborhood park to do half of my taiji form and then, because the sun was out and the sky was so beautiful and the birds were singing and the grass was incredibly green, I did some Taiji Qigong.

It was just very nice, as had been my Seated Meditation with Cat earlier in the morning.

And perhaps that is enough. To have something you can do to take you to a space that is just very nice is really quite wonderful.

Even if nothing more ever happens, perhaps this morning was worth all the time and angst I have put into taiji and qigong.

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Colorizing the Story of Me…

I have been corresponding with a woman in Norway who responded to my post on depression in the face of qigong, or qigong in the face of depression. Hers was a supportive voice and also a kindred voice, and I am deeply grateful that she has been willing to communicate, since she is both a good writer and a person with things to say that have been helpful to me to hear.

We got into an exchange about the possibility of letting go of our stories, the things we tell ourselves about who we are.

A few days after one exchange, there arrived in my inbox, originally from a site called Quartz but now part of an Apple News compilation, an article with the following headline:

“By the Time You’re 77, You’ll Be a Different Person: A new personality study reveals that between 14 and 77, we don’t just age, our entire personality changes.”

The article was based on a study published in “Psychology and Aging” that began with data from a 1950 survey of 1,208 14-year-olds in Scotland.

Teachers had been asked to rate the kids on six personality traits: self-confidence, perseverance, stability of moods, conscientiousness, originality, and desire to learn.

More than 60 years later, researchers tracked down 635 of the now 77-year-old participants, and 174 of them agreed to repeat testing. They rated themselves on the six personality traits and also chose a friend or relative to do the same.

To the researchers’ surprise, they found little correlation between ratings then and now. Studies where the interval was shorter had found correlation, but apparently with enough time, our personalities are transformed.

I shared this report with my friend—but, as I told her, I’m not sure I agree that, at 75, I’m an almost completely different person from myself at 14.

It’s true that change over more than 60 years might be so gradual that even I, sitting front row center, wouldn’t notice.

However, although I have accumulated a lot of memories in 60-plus years, some of them are more than memories “about” someone or something. In these special memories I am inside myself as I was inside myself then, experiencing whatever I was seeing or feeling or thinking. (Hmmm…. I don’t hear things in my memories….)

All of these memories seem to have the same “me” inside them. Perhaps I’ve just linked them and thereby formed the story of who is me—but there is some quality to them that seems akin to a space I sometimes briefly reach in meditation, a space that also feels like me, a space without words or specific content—one might say, a space without story. Continue reading

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Qigong in a Darker Shade of Blue

NOTE: I banged this out on Sunday evening. Writing it felt therapeutic. Monday, the day of the Big(ish) Snow, I decided I wouldn’t post it. Qigong is arguably an interesting subject, at least to a minuscule segment of the population. Depression is just depressing.

Today I decided that I should post it, on grounds that I had promised myself when I began writing this blog that I would try to be honest. I don’t promote the blog anymore, and I don’t follow the statistics as to how many people read it. I do know that hardly any of my friends and none of my family do. But a principle is a principle, so I am going to go through this and add a few things, and then I will post it before I can change my mind.

 

A week and a half ago I decided that the elephant in the room of my life was depression, and that it had no intention of leaving. I had failed at managing my life. I needed help.

I asked my doctor for a mental health referral and was given an appointment with a psychiatrist for Valentine’s Day, almost three weeks out. I did some online research and decided to take 5-htp to try to boost my serotonin levels while I waited to see someone who might have a better idea.

I explored resigning from the board of my residential co-op, because I felt I had become negative and lacking in generosity and was suffering altogether too much anguish over being embroiled in public controversy for being on the board to be good for me. I didn’t care if the whole community thought I was an emotional cripple.

Perhaps not surprisingly, since taking action almost always helps, I am already feeling better.

Yesterday, the day of this winter’s Big(ish) Snow, everything on my schedule was cancelled except for a physical therapy appointment. I decided to take the bus, although once I got down to the street I realized I could easily have driven and it would have taken an hour, instead of four. But no matter. I had a lovely time. I smiled at people and struck up a couple of conversations. I realized that my gaze had turned outward.

However, darkness hovers at the edges of my awareness, and I fear the hopelessness and anguish I felt. Especially I fear the moments when I thought I might be losing my mind into a very dark and terrible place.

A few days ago I read back through the journal I mostly write in the morning, while I drink my first cup of tea. I can see now that around about Thanksgiving, it was as if a switch had been flipped. I was no longer in a good space.

I kept doing all my usual things, and nobody seemed to notice any difference. Indeed, periodically I felt pretty good. But the backdrop of depression was there to emerge when I was alone or tired. Sometimes I’d feel like crying, for no reason whatsoever. Other times I experienced deep self-loathing. I hated myself for being who I was instead of a kinder, more generous, happier person who would give to the world instead of spreading negativity. On New Year’s Day, I wrote a positive post. It was genuine. I felt good that day and resolved to improve my attitude—but the “good” didn’t last.

Doubtless SAD—Seasonal Affective Disorder—was at play. Historically, the winter months have been when I was most likely to be depressed.

Except that I thought my qigong practice had made depression a thing of the past. Anyway, it was supposed to. The idea was that I might still get to feeling low, but I would be able to recognize what was happening and not go as deep and pull out faster. Indeed, this was pretty much true for several years.

I know don’t whether to call this winter’s depression long or short, but I don’t recall ever before feeling that I might be losing my mind, that it might even be disintegrating.

If I look for reasons why this winter I fell so hard, one possibility is that this year, for the first time in perhaps 30 years, I didn’t go to California for seven to 10 days at Christmas. My body didn’t get its accustomed solar reset.

But also qigong, which has been a cornerstone of my life for more than six years, now feels more like a question mark.

Last summer it seemed some interesting things were happening. Then I was told that perhaps those phenomena, and also the “spells” I had had the fall and winter before, were aberrations, either the unveiling of some underlying condition or the result of my trying too hard in my practice, forcing instead of allowing, getting too stressed, and harming my body. I was told—and, indeed, believe it to be true—that I needed to step back, to listen, to let go. I wasn’t told, but nonetheless felt, that wherever it was I had thought qigong might take me, I might simply be too old and physically and temperamentally unsuited to go.

As well, the balance problem that manifests when I am doing taiji has persisted, despite everything I’ve done to deal with it, and I have less and less hope of ever resolving it and being able to do the form the way I would like.

Before and during the time I was depressed, I was seeing a new Chinese medical doctor, getting acupuncture and taking herbs. I really liked him, and hoped that he might become my qigong teacher as well, but then we had a falling out over the herbs he prescribed. I’m not sure if he fired me as a patient because of the way I was asking him questions about the herbs or whether I fired him because of the way he stopped answering.

I stopped taking the last batch of herbs he prescribed because I didn’t see how they could possibly be doing me any good when I had fallen into such despair.

I don’t know whether I will pursue acupuncture or herbs again. It is an expensive pursuit. And now that I have finished reading “The Web That Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine,” I doubt I will do herbs again, because I’m not willing to fly on faith and trust in art rather than science. I may go to another acupuncturist. I told a friend that I always felt better after acupuncture but wasn’t sure it produced the lasting change that would justify spending the money. She asked why simply enjoying it wasn’t justification enough. Hmmmm….. Why not, indeed?

So there it is. When I started writing this blog four years ago, I was wildly enthusiastic about qigong and where it might lead me. Now I just don’t know. I continue to practice. I still feel good when I do, and I still have some hope that it will help me understand whatever existence is and live a more satisfying life. But more days go by without my getting to any of my qigong practices, and I intend to keep the appointment with the shrink. If she recommends an anti-depressant, I will probably take it, perhaps forever.

I have found that qigong doesn’t make a person bullet-proof.

Damn.

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New Year’s Day Spiritual Recognitions….

Like many of you, I generally use the turning of the year to take stock of my life and make resolutions to fix some of the ways in which I find it, and me, wanting.

On this New Year’s morning, I had repaired to my sofa with tea and cat, prepared to do what I’ve done before, when I found an email from my Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner and his naturopath wife in my iPhone inbox.

They proposed doing a different sort of stock-taking: taking stock of what’s good and what’s working in our lives, instead of what’s wrong, and beginning the year with feelings of gratitude instead of focusing  on deficiency.

If we’re struggling in some areas, they suggested we bring kindly attention to those areas, without berating ourselves, and then realign, perhaps redefine, and shift from wanting to having.

Frankly, some years I would have found this message a bit pat, even cloying. This New Year’s Day I realized, slowly but surely, that it was just what I needed, and what I wanted to and could do.

There are many areas of my life where I realize on a regular basis that I am incredibly fortunate, where gratitude comes easily.

But my spiritual practices had become problematic. I worried that they were self-indulgent, perhaps even pointless, or worse. Taiji often felt like an exercise in failure, what with my balance/dizziness/internal swoopiness issues. And I didn’t know where to go with qigong, since maybe I’d been doing it wrong and/or amplifying flaws inherent to my aging brain, with the result being internal swoopiness instead of knowing and peace.

But as I pondered, I realized there were indeed positives in my spiritual practices, things I could be grateful for. Continue reading

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Inflated for the Holidays and More Curious Than Ever

What does it mean when a person standing across the room from you waves his arms in your direction and you begin to feel like a giant inflatable Santa Claus being blown up for a holiday display?

You marvel as your normally twisted torso is pulled into alignment and you get taller and rounder as everywhere you expand and fill with tingling.

This happened to me recently in a guided meditation class. The teacher, who is a Chinese medicine practitioner I’ve been working with, had offered to do an energy demonstration, and I had volunteered to be his subject.

He started out holding L-shaped dowsing rods in each hand. When they crossed as he walked towards me, he said that marked the edge of my energy field. Then he had me hold his smart phone. My energy field, as defined by the dowsing rods, shrank considerably. It grew larger again when he had me hold a black chunk of rock called tektite in the same hand as the phone, tektite being a rock said to protect against the effects of cell phone radiation.

My doubting mind was not impressed. How could I be sure that it was my energy rather than his conscious or subconscious intent that was affecting the dowsing rods he held in his hands?

But I could not deny what I felt when he then began waving his arms in my direction before walking towards me with the dowsing rods to demonstrate that my energy field was now even larger than it had been at the start of the demonstration.

The tingling and the sense of inflatable Santa expansion were very real—and I don’t think I produced those sensations with my mind because I had had no expectation that I would feel anything. As I said, my mind was in doubting mode.

The sensations were unique, although I have had people send energy into my body a number of other times. Twice, a teacher extended a soft white cloud around me; several times, massage therapists have sent energy down through my body from the top of my head; and even more times than that, I’ve held my hand between the hands of an energy practitioner and felt it go limp as my body filled with a subtle presence.

But this particular incident was both strong and recent, so it is on my mind. I have so many questions about it. Such as why I felt the results of his arm-waving so keenly when he was standing across the room from me when I’d felt nothing a few weeks previous, when he waved his arms in a similar manner as I was lying on his acupuncture table. Continue reading

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Has Qigong Harmed This Stressed-Out Old Person?

Late in the evening, when I’m too tired to do anything worthwhile, I like to watch Jimmy Fallon YouTube videos on my iPhone. I google “jimmy fallon youtube,” and my phone presents me with a list of clips from his shows. Once I watch one, I start getting lists that include “recommended for you” links to other talk shows, plus, occasionally, a wildcard recommendation based on my having watched some completely different video weeks or months previous.

And so it was that recently my phone “recommended for me” a video by Damo Mitchell titled “Qigong, Problems in Practice and Jing,” recorded for Singing Dragon’s Virtual Qigong Festival 2016 in April. https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=youtub+damo+mitchell+problems+in+practice&view=detail&mid=1189B55F133E015B5DFA1189B55F133E015B5DFA&FORM=VIRE

Oh, my. Thank you, iPhone. I’m a serious Damo fan—and I’ve certainly had problems in practice.

I have now watched the video three times and have concluded that the “spells” and the ongoing internal swoopiness I’ve written about previously may well be the sorts of problems Damo’s talking about and may well have resulted from my qigong practice.

In the video, Damo says that one or two people out of 100 who take up qigong in a serious way will encounter problems. Sometimes it’s because they’re tuning into their bodies for the first time, and an existing condition pops into their awareness—which is good, because then they can seek treatment.

But some people may actually be harming themselves because moving their qi around in qigong draws upon their reserves of jing, which is the energetic foundation for qi. If their jing was running low to start with and becomes even more deficient through their practice of qigong, they may develop kidney deficiency symptoms like chronic exhaustion, tinnitus, panicky feelings when asked to breathe deeply, pressure rising up in the head and headaches, to name the problems I most relate to—which is most of the ones Damo named.

If this starts to happen, Damo says, you need to rebuild your jing, and the way to do it is through healthy living and stress reduction.

Healthy living means getting the right amount of sleep, generally 7-8 hours; eating a healthy diet; limiting alcohol; and not smoking. (Damo says a qigong student who smokes won’t get very far and a qigong teacher who smokes is a fool.)

For people who’ve drained their jing through stress, he recommends not more qigong but rather sitting with eyes closed, breathing and observing the body, for 20 minutes per day. Continue reading

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The Melting Face of Love

It was during a seated meditation that I looked into the eyes of the melting face of love.

I was just back from Estes Park, Colorado, where I’d gone with 10 family members to scatter the ashes of six people who had loved that place—my parents; an aunt who died this year at 101; and a second aunt, her husband, and their daughter, who had died long before they did in her 30s.

I had never been to Estes Park before, but I could see why they had so often spoken of it. It was so beautiful, and so different from Chicago and Maryland and California and Seattle, the places where they and I had lived.

A few days after returning home, during my seated-meditation-with-cat, I found myself chanting the words “mountains, rocks, trees, earth” in my head, with each word bringing a remembered image from Estes Park to mind.

I may have been slipping towards sleep because I have no sense of leaving those images and arriving elsewhere, but suddenly I was seeing a face, looking into eyes, and as I looked into them, the eyes softened, becoming warm, totally loving, totally accepting. Actually, I don’t know if the eyes and the face melted, or if I melted into them—but then they were gone and I felt a wave of almost palpable energy, white, like water vapor, leaving the face and settling onto my shoulders and upper chest. It was warm and lovely. I felt a smile and it may be that I actually did smile. And I felt good all day.

But the face was gone. It had been a woman’s face, clearly. I cannot now bring it to mind’s eye, but it wasn’t the face of anyone I have known—not my mother’s, not mine, not a Chinese face, as might befit my qigong practice, not a brown Native American face, as might befit Colorado.

But so nice, so warm.

I of course wanted more.

I tried going back to chanting “mountains, rocks, trees, earth,” adding “sky, clouds and moon”—and I’m not sure why I didn’t have the moon in there from the beginning, because when I was in Estes Park there was a full moon, and it was everywhere in the night sky, unlike in the Seattle area, where you have to find a place where there are no trees to see it.

I knew that trying to experience the face again wouldn’t work. All of my powerful energy experiences have been one-offs, things that came completely out of the blue and never returned. But I did so want to feel the love of the face again that I tried anyway. Continue reading

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