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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Which Way Does It Go, Anyway?

You would think, or anyway I would think, that internal energy cultivators would agree on something as fundamental as which direction energy travels in the circuit involving the du and ren meridians, a circuit often referred to as the small universe circulation or small water wheel or microcosmic orbit.

When I first began to study qigong, I learned, and indeed most books teach, that energy travels up the back in the du meridian and down through the third eye on the forehead to the end of the du meridian just above the upper lip. Then it enters the ren meridian just below the lower lip and travels down the ren to the bottom of the torso where the du meridian begins.

I have done exercises to cultivate this energy flow, and I can feel it.

But later I began hearing that maybe women need to send more energy to their hearts. Dr. Sun—Dr. Guan-Cheng Sun, my longtime qigong teacher, creator of Yi Ren Qigong and founder of the Institute of Qigong and Integrative Medicine—created a female version of the small universe exercise we’d all been doing, which had started with a “reverse” refreshing cycle up the front and down the back and then had three cycles of up the back, down the front. The new exercise had three cycles of up the front and down the back, ending with one of up the back and down the front.

Dr. Sun offered it to women (and men, for that matter) as something they could do if they liked it, if it felt right to them. I didn’t like it and ended up devising my own exercise, which involved bringing energy up the back to the kidneys and then sending it to the heart. I don’t think other women much liked it either—or maybe we were all just used to doing it the “male” way. At any rate, this female version of the small universe exercise seemed to get lost.

In their book “Daoist Nei Gong for Women,” British teacher Damo Mitchell and his partner Roni Edlund say that the “reverse small water wheel” begins to take place of its own accord during training for both sexes and that it becomes very important for women, but not for men.

And now the acupuncturist recommended to me by Damo after I attended his recent seminar in Toronto has told me that in children, qi travels up the front and down the back. Around the ages of 5 to 7, as children begin to settle into the realities of life, the qi reverses direction, and they become less intuitive and imaginative. For men, it continues to travel up the back and down the front. But in women, he says, qi reverses again at menopause to travel up the front and down the back, and they can enter into a period of intuitive awareness and spiritual growth. Continue reading

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From an Odd Incident in My Past To Eyeglasses in My Future….

Two and a half years ago something happened that I recorded in my qigong journal but did not write about here—probably because I didn’t fully understand it and didn’t want to deal with it.

On a day late in May 2014, I did my qigong practice, with heavy emphasis on an exercise designed to send energy up the chong meridians in the body’s core, then did an hour of taiji practice, then drove to an appointment with my eye doctor. I was talking on the phone to a friend as I got out of the car to go up to the doctor’s office. I will quote now from what I wrote in my journal that evening:

“When I got out of the car, I felt myself enormously pulled to earth, sunk down through the sacrum area. I felt a bit drunken as I walked through the waiting area to check in. Then I stood instead of sitting while waiting for my appointment and felt enormous energy moving up from my earth center (at the bottom of the torso). It was more focused and columnar than when I do the small universe, and I thought it was probably actually my chong meridian or meridians.

“Sitting and waiting in the eye chair, I was still doing it, although less so, but I put my hand on the back of my neck and almost thought I could feel it. I say I was doing it, but I can only “do” that sort of thing when it appears and can be done.

“Sitting here now I am feeling hot and a bit spacey, with a bit of pressure either in my third-eye area or my sinuses. Do I have a heart condition? But the sensation earlier today was so strong up from the earth center to what I guess is the third ventricle (in the brain). I do think it was my chong meridian, which would be really the first time I’ve felt it, at least so clearly that I was pretty sure it was chong and not du. Hmmm….. That was one of the things I told Dr. Sun I couldn’t do—tell the chong from the du—and then he gave me the exercises I am now doing.

“I’m going to get up now and see if I fall over…. I stood up and didn’t fall over, but walking seems challenging, and I feel pressure at the top of my head. Maybe I’ll go sit on the cushion…. Well, instead of sitting on the cushion, I did some chong meridian exercise. I feel a bit better, but still too much energy in my head. But I think it will pass.”

As I recall, after writing the above, I did some other work on the computer, and then I got up to get ready for bed—and could barely walk because my head felt like it was making wide circles.

I felt much better in the morning, although within the next several weeks I saw my doctor and ultimately a physical therapist for the residual vertigo, which I felt whenever I turned my head as I walked. The physical therapist gave me two exercises to do, and eventually the tendency to vertigo passed.

I believe that I asked Dr. Sun about this, and that he was not alarmed.

At about the same time—and I have no notes about this—I developed a ringing in my left ear which only occurred when I lay down to go to bed. That persisted for quite awhile but now is also gone. Continue reading

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