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.
First off, I have come to realize that I truly enjoy my first-thing-in-the-morning meditation-on-sofa-with-cat. If I don’t have time to do it, I feel a real loss. Wow! Meditation has gone beyond being a matter of self-discipline. What a blessing!
As well, I think I really do know what to do about my taiji practice, which is to teach taiji to my body/brain at a new level, moving very slowly, getting my alignments so perfect that I couldn’t fall over if I wanted to. This approach partly follows the exercises physical therapists have taught me for retraining balance. But it is also inspired by the taiji teacher who recently taught me something called “qigong walking”—thank you!—and by a recent email from a friend who also practices taiji and qigong, and who also has balance and mood issues, but who sees deep, patient exploration of the form as his path through these difficulties, although he adds: “I hope to remain a seeker and find peace in the search rather than hope for peace as a destination.” Beautiful….
As I continued sitting on my sofa attempting to take positive stock of my spiritual practices, I could see I was on a roll.
I considered the problem of my qigong practice.
Damo Mitchell, a qigong teacher I enormously respect, has been kind enough to give me some advice and to respond to a couple of my posts. In responding to the one titled “Has Qigong Harmed This Stressed-Out Old Person,” published Dec. 16, 2016, he said:
“If it helps at all, in my opinion you don’t strike me as somebody who has damaged themselves through Qi Gong practice. Just maybe recognising an underlying condition (we all have an underlying condition of one type or another!). Just remember in your Qi Gong practice that the basis of all practice is Song (release/letting go) and Ting (listening/mindfulness). These are both fairly passive activities. Neither of these stress the Kidneys. ‘Leading’ things does stress the Kidneys a little and so be careful with this. The better you get at Ting and Song, the better you will become at nourishing the Kidneys and Jing. Best wishes, Damo”
I was grateful for his comments, although I also thought, “Damn, another question mark.” Am I afflicted with an underlying condition or guilty of leading—or both?
But New Year’s Day I realized that actually, it doesn’t matter, and that, indeed, I know that Song (release/letting go) and Ting (listening/mindfulness) are what I need to do, and can do, and will do.
As I pondered more, the roll continued.
The evening before, on New Year’s Eve, two friends and I had gathered for a qigong session, lit by the pink glow of salt lamps and all in all quite lovely, as are my friends. After we’d done a number of Yi Ren Qigong exercises, one of my friends led a guided meditation that ended up with the instruction to meditate on our lungs and liver for 10 minutes.
I am reading Ted Kaptchuk’s “The Web That Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine,” and he says that in western medicine, organs are defined by their physical attributes, where in Traditional Chinese Medicine, function is more important than where an organ is located or what it looks like—with the functions of an organ including not only its physiological activities but also its energetic and spiritual roles.
Well, I think my friends “get” this concept, but I do not. So for 10 minutes I focused, lungwise, on the sensations of my ribcage expanding and contracting, and tried to visualize pink, spongy material inflating and deflating. (Books show pink, and I’ve never smoked, so surely my lungs are pink.) My liver was more difficult, as I cannot feel it although I know where it must be—so I went with visualizing a dense, dark red slab, the color of human liver in books and the color of beef liver at the grocery store.
In other words, for 10 minutes, I meditated on offal and meat. It was not satisfying.
But New Year’s Day, I decided to take another look at what I’d viewed as a failure.
My friends both have a certain radiance that they say comes from having surrendered. They have suggested that that’s what I might do: Just surrender. Sigh. They both have a concept of a higher power or presence to which one might surrender. I do not, although I would be happy to have such a concept were I to experience any evidence. However, New Year’s Day I realized that what I needed to surrender to was: “This is it. This is my life, and this is me, 74 years old, underlying conditions and inability to conceive anything beyond the physical qualities of organs and all.”
I have always thought that there should be something more. There was a period during my childhood when I would lie in bed at night fantasizing that a mistake had been made and I had been given to the wrong parents, and that indeed I was a princess and would soon be claimed by my royal family. I think I’ve continued to feel, at some level, that there must be something better, something more, than my actual life and certainly something better and more than my actual me. What if I surrendered to “This is it and this is me and this is good enough?”
A corollary to this would be being willing to let go of what isn’t working for me, such as feeling I’ve failed because I don’t “get” the higher functions of organs. I meditated for 10 minutes on the stuff they make cat food out of? Oh, well…. There are other things that will work for me, other ways of traveling my spiritual path, and I’ve already figured some of them out.
Actually, this all feels rather hopeful…..