Category Archives: Spirituality

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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Qi Dimension, Take 2

A stone wall Thomas Merton might have seen burning

A stone wall Thomas Merton might have seen burning

A couple of weeks ago, Janine Larsen, who is the executive of the Pacific Northwest District of the Unitarian Universalist Association and also a member of my UU church, spoke at a Sunday morning service about her Buddhist spiritual practice.

She called her talk “Cultivating Irrational Mind,” although I wish she’d called it “Cultivating Non-Rational Mind” because, for me, the word “irrational” brings forth images of people shouting and being nasty and totally unwilling to consider anyone else’s point of view during an argument or at a political gathering. But, then, it was her talk….

And it was a wonderful talk, full of things I particularly needed to hear that morning when I was deeply into my late-life crisis. I asked her to send me a copy so I could have some of her words to hang on to.

When I printed it out and read it, I put a giant star in the margin where she quoted UU lay leader David Rynick as saying, “Spiritual practice is what we do repeatedly with the intention of moving closer to that which is most true and alive for us.”

Yes…. Yes. And I should probably add that I definitely view qigong as a spiritual practice.

Farther on Janine said that Buddhist meditation has helped her grow a more spacious mind, that she occasionally experiences internal quiet when she is being still, and that she can more readily let things go and trust who she really is instead of worrying about who she thinks she is or should be.

Which I think/hope is the direction qigong is taking me. Indeed, perhaps what I have termed my late-life crisis is merely the result of the ways qigong is changing me. Change, of course, is not always comfortable.

Janine spoke of Zen Buddhist koans, the seemingly nonsensical stories that Zen teachers use to get their students to shift from logical analysis to intuitive, non-rational understanding. She presented several examples of stories that would once have driven me nuts, including the poem “In Silence” by Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk, mystic and amazingly prolific writer. Continue reading

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A ‘Why Bother’ Speech…

This picture has nothing to do with this post -- but it's spring!

This picture has nothing to do with this post — but it’s spring!

Last Friday evening, April 11, 2014, I spoke at one of the Institute of Qigong & Integrative Medicine’s community programs, which was held at a church in Woodinville, WA. I’m reprinting that speech here.

I am delighted to be here tonight giving this talk about my journey into qigong.

It is definitely an honor to be speaking on the same program as Dr. Sun.

But also it is very special to me that I am speaking with Dr. Sun here, in this particular place, because this is where my qigong journey began, not quite four years ago.

This is my church—and I should say here that this is not a church event; IQ&IM rented the sanctuary for the evening, just as it has rented other churches and others types of facilities—but still, it is my church, and it is where I first felt something I was willing to call “qi.”

I had been studying taiji for almost eight years and was teaching a taiji class here at church, with six wonderful students who were part of the church community.

My taiji teacher, Martin Mellish, didn’t talk about qi a lot, but when he did, he referred to it casually, as a given—but it wasn’t a given as far as I was concerned. I had never felt anything that seemed to require a special name, and I had never encountered an explanation of qi sufficient to give me a concept.

I’m pretty literal; I take words at face value and I like them to have clear meanings.

Martin always began and ended each of our taiji classes with a bow, and one of the things he would say was that your hands would float to the level of your heart and be drawn together as if by some force. I would generally have my eyes closed for most of the bow, but I would open one of them when he got to the part about “hands being drawn together as if by some force” because I didn’t want my hands to miss.

When I started teaching taiji here at the church, I included bows, and the words about hands being drawn together as if by some force, because, after all, that was what Martin did, and because I thought it might mean something to some of my students, and I wanted to offer them the possibility.

I think I’d been teaching for maybe a year, when one evening, when I absolutely was not expecting to feel anything because I never felt anything, I was leading a bow—standing just about there—and I felt my right hand being sucked towards my left.

I was blown away.

I had felt something that needed a name, and I was willing to call it qi. I was probably feeling my own electromagnetic field, which may be part of what qi is, or one type of qi, I don’t really know—but still…. how awesome that I could feel energy that I had never felt before, that I really didn’t think was feelable.

Martin was in the process of leaving the U.S. to live in China, so I was never able to really discuss my experience with him. But I knew I needed to study qigong.

I started out with Ken Cohen’s boxed set of CDs, DVDs and a manual and dutifully did his 100-day qigong training program for 100 days. I began feeling energy in new places, but by the end of 100 days, I had realized that a boxed set wasn’t going to cut it, that I needed a live teacher and also a community of fellow practitioners.

I found Brendan Thorson, who was teaching something called Yi Ren Qigong in the U district at a yoga studio that was across the street from an apartment house where I’d lived during the early ‘60s—which at the time seemed like a really cool coincidence. I took a string of classes from Brendan and learned about acupuncture meridians and deepened my awareness of energy.

Through Brendan I learned about Dr. Sun, and I began taking Dr. Sun’s advanced seminars.

They were way beyond my level of energy experience, way beyond anything I’d ever thought I’d even be considering believing. By noon of the first day of a weekend seminar I would be thinking, “What am I doing here? This is just too weird, and I’m not even good at this kind of weirdness.”

Dr. Sun would say things that I thought were way over the top, although nobody else seemed to think so.

There were people at those seminars who were, like, graduate students, where I was barely a freshman—but there were also other freshmen who seemed to be naturally sensitive to energy, unlike naturally insensitive me. We’d do meditations, and some people would see colors or get images of things like mountains and eagles; I would get maybe a nap.

There were people who could feel emotions in their organs, even the silent ones like the liver and the kidneys and the pancreas. I barely knew where some of those organs were, except in the very general sense of somewhere inside my torso between my heart and my guts. Once I asked my doctor to draw my kidneys on my back with a Sharpie permanent marker—and by the way, Sharpies are not at all permanent on flesh, so don’t ask to see my kidneys when this is over.

After these seminars, I would go home wondering why someone as logical, as analytical, as committed to reason and the principles of science as I am would be attending seminars that were way out in woo-woo land. And then the next seminar would be announced and I would sign up because I was afraid I might miss something.

I kept taking classes and practicing the Yi Ren exercises, and I began to be able to relate to more of what Dr. Sun said in the seminars.

Still, my periods of being deeply committed to qigong would be punctuated by doubts—like why was I was engaged in such self-indulgent nonsense, why wasn’t I putting my time, energy and money into something more worthy, or at least something that would be easier, something where I actually had some natural talent instead of a mountain of left-brainedness to overcome.

I still have moments of doubt, times when I wonder if this is all self-delusion. I think it is my nature to doubt.

So given all my doubts, why do I keep doing qigong?

Why bother?

And it is a bother. It’s one thing to think about doing qigong, and another to overcome my inertia and get off the sofa or off the computer and start practicing—and yet I do it pretty much every day.

The short-term answer to why I bother is that once I get myself going, I can continue effortlessly for an hour, sometimes less, sometimes more, and afterwards, I always feel better. Sometimes I feel almost euphoric and enormously grateful that I have this tool, this thing that I can do whenever and wherever I want that will relax my body and my mind and open my heart. Qigong doesn’t even make you fat!

Yi Ren Qigong is a health-oriented qigong. I know people who are very clear that it has vastly improved their health, perhaps even saved their life. I honestly can’t say whether it has improved my health and emotional well-being. I’m just not sure. There’s no control group for me. I don’t know what I’d be like if I weren’t doing qigong.

What really keeps me going is that every so often, I experience something amazing, something I wouldn’t have believed possible but now cannot deny, like the time I first felt qi between my hands—something that makes me think that even the weirdest things Dr. Sun says might possibly, at some level, be true.

The things that happen always take me by surprise; I cannot make them happen—and believe me, there have been plenty of times I’ve said to myself, “I could really use something amazing right now.” It doesn’t work.

Also, once these experiences happen, I can’t expect them to recur. In fact, even though I definitely feel energy between my hands these days, I no longer feel one hand being sucked to the other. It just doesn’t happen.

The things that happen, the little amazements, are always very clear, very precise, and although I wasn’t expecting them and hadn’t even conceived that they might happen, I recognize them. Once I felt my kidney energy whirling. Several times I’ve become aware of particular energy centers—like, thwack, it’s there, exactly there.

And because these experiences are always a surprise and so unlike anything in my previous experience, I know that I’m not making them up, I’m not imagining them. They are true and real. I don’t think you can imagine things if you’ve never experienced something similar.

Tonight I’d like to share an amazing thing that happened to me relatively recently—in fact, after Amy and I had agreed that I would speak at this meeting, and that it would be held here in my church.

I should tell you first that I have a lot of fears. For one, I’m afraid of earthquakes. My usual approach to dealing with my fears is to get more information—which is why I read the book “Full Rip 9.0,” which is about the Pacific Northwest’s history of megaquakes and the probability of additional megaquakes happening in the future—and let me tell you, “Full Rip 9.0” is not the book to read if you want to assuage your fear of earthquakes.

I had just finished reading “Full Rip 9.0” when I agreed to lead an evening practice session at IQ&IM’s headquarters in Bothell, which is located in the basement of a very old building on Main Street—beneath the antiques store, for those of you know Bothell. If there is a megaquake, I doubt the building will fare well. I always worry about this when I am there for a seminar, and I sit as close to the door as I can. Like I said, I have my issues.

On this particular night, it turned out that the other teacher who was supposed to be there couldn’t come, so it was just me, and it ended up also being just one student. It was a very dark, cold night. But I was fine as I got ready for the class and all through the class. When it was over, I walked the student up the stairs, locked the door and went back downstairs to begin the procedures for closing up the room.

I was alone with my thoughts on that dark, cold night in an underground tomb—and I was terrified. To make matters worse, I figured my fear was polluting the room, and that some very sensitive person, probably Dr. Sun, would come in the next day and feel my fear.

I desperately wanted to leave, but there was this checklist of things I was supposed to do. I opened the one little window and turned on some fans to air the room out, turned off the heat, unplugged the teapot and put away the folding chairs.

The next thing on the list was to do some qigong to clear any negative energy I might have picked up leading the class. Well, I didn’t think I had picked up any negative energy from the class; it was all mine and it was ENORMOUS. I didn’t really believe that doing the amount of qigong I was prepared to stay there long enough to do was going to help, but I did several exercises so I could at least say I tried.

And on the last one, as I was bending down to guide energy down the Yin Qiao and Yin Wei meridians, I felt something fall away from my body, from my lower legs, and onto the floor. I could almost see it, and it seemed almost to have substance, something somewhere between fluid and fluffy. It was absolutely real—and then it was gone. And afterwards I wasn’t nearly so afraid. I still wanted to go home, but I wasn’t desperate.

A few days later, I wrote a post about the experience for my blog—and then I didn’t think much more about it.

A couple of weeks passed. I went to another seminar with Dr. Sun based on the classic Daoist/Chinese-Buddhist guide to meditation, “Secret of the Golden Flower.”

This was another seminar that was beyond me, and worse yet, it involved words like “universal spirit” and “upper soul” and “lower soul,” words for which I had no concept—just as I once had no concept for the word “qi.”

Afterwards, I began working on a post about the seminar that started out with my complaining that I knew how to spell the word “soul,” and knew how to use it in a sentence, but that for me, it was an empty word devoid of experiential or intellectual content.

I was struggling with the post, rewriting it again and again. Then one morning as I was watering my houseplants and thinking about what I could do to make the post work, it occurred to me, hey, maybe I do know what soul is, what spirit is. Maybe I do have a soul concept, or could have a soul concept.

I have heard people speak of having been with a loved one at their time of death and knowing, almost seeing, that something left their body at the moment they died—something you’d probably call “spirit” or “soul.”

Which sounds rather like what I experienced when the energy of my fear left my body while doing qigong.

Something leaves, you can almost see it and you feel like you could touch it. Perhaps when I die the energy of my being alive, my qi, will leave my body in a similar manner.

I cannot tell you how thrilled I am to have had this realization, even though I have no idea what to do with it or where it will take me.

Probably some of you are thinking that the experience I described was a hallucination, or perhaps you consider it a sacrilege to compare something that fell from my legs to the floor with the human soul. Or maybe you think my experience was real but just not a very big deal.

But I have always wanted to understand what life is, which is a really slippery quest. You can think and think and think and not know. At some point, words inevitably fail. I’m not opposed to thinking and words—I love thinking and words—but some things you have to know some other way. And qigong is the best pathway I’ve found to knowing beyond words.

Through qigong I have experienced so many things I would once have dismissed as figments of people’s imaginations, starting with feeling my right hand being sucked to my left hand, on through feeling fear drop from my body as something almost visible, almost palpable.

Who knows what I will experience next?

I can hardly wait to find out.

And if Yi Ren Qigong makes me healthier and happier to boot—well, so much the better. I can handle it. It’s all good.

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I’ve Got Soul!

My first draft of this post started with my saying that I knew how to spell the word “soul” and knew how to use it in a sentence—but that “soul” was an empty word as far as I was concerned, a word without a concept.

I wrote of feeling put off when people used the word with the same certainty as, say, “leg” or “boulder,” as had happened at a Yi Ren Qigong seminar I had recently attended based on “The Secret of the Golden Flower,” a classic Daoist/Chinese-Buddhist guide to meditation.

But the post was never quite right, although I’d worked and reworked it nigh unto death.

And then this morning, as I was watering my houseplants and rewriting the post yet again in my head, it occurred to me that actually, I did have a concept of soul, or at least I could have one. Continue reading

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Something Happened

As my friend sat with her mother’s body in the afternoon following her mother’s death, she had an experience that she does not understand, and that I do not understand—an experience that touched her too deeply to be denied.

She had gotten up from her mother’s bedside to join her brother in the living room, but she stopped at the doorway and turned back to look at her mother.

“The air began to change; it was softer. I just felt something different. That’s when she whispered in my ear. It was a stage whisper—she had a theater background. She said, ‘Relief.’

“I knew that’s what she felt. She was ready. She’d decided everybody was on a good path; it was like she felt safe to go.

“As I was taking in this word, all of a sudden I felt this hand….”

She felt her mother scratch her back the way she sometimes had in life, although she was also aware that she was attaching the meaning of a hand to the sensation. But as she was looking at her mother’s body, the touch passed through her body.

“The hand went through my entire body from head to toe, touching every bit as a cross-section scan, starting at the crown of my head. It relaxed my face, jaw and neck, which I had felt relaxed before.

“When it got to the organs, that was a first, to identify individual organs and feel them relax. I’d never felt my organs before. I felt each one. Everything relaxed. This peaceful, easy thing went through my body. It was awesome. I wasn’t at all afraid. It was very lovely.

“Then gradually the softness of the air evaporated; it disappeared into the usual air.” Continue reading

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Qi as Holy Spirit

A pleasant surprise in reading “The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi” was seeing this quote from a book written by my former taiji teacher Martin Mellish, who’s now living in China:

“In his book on Tai Chi imagery, Martin Mellish writes that if there were one translation of ‘Holy Spirit’ into Chinese, it would simply be Qi.”

I was delighted to see Martin’s name in print. I also liked the quote, which I’d quite forgotten since reading the book several years ago.

When I e-mailed Martin to tell him he’d been quoted, he sent me the full passage, which I like even more:

“The Chinese term for the breath, chi (qi in the modern Pinyin transcription system) also means life, power, vitality, and energy. This use of the same term to mean both ‘breath’ and ‘life’ is one of the aspects of the Tai Chi tradition that has been most enthusiastically adopted in the West.

“Strangely, few seem to have noticed that this same overlap of meaning is also common in Western languages. The words for ‘breath’ in Latin (spiritus) and in Greek (anemos or pneuma), also mean ‘the spirit of life within us: that which animates and inspires us’. The words ‘spirit’, ‘animate’, and ‘inspire’ used in the previous sentence all have Latin or Greek roots meaning ‘breath’. The word in the New Testament usually translated ‘Holy Spirit’, pneuma, in the original Greek simply means ‘the breath’. If we were to translate ‘Holy Spirit’ into Chinese, the best translation would simply be ‘Chi’.”

Oddly, perhaps, I like this passage not because it gives me a better understanding of the word “qi,” or “chi,” but because it gives me a way to relate to the term “Holy Spirit,” which is one of many religious expressions whose meaning I’ve never been able to grasp.

I know what breath feels like, and I know what qi feels like, and through my qigong practice, I have come to understand why one might attach the term “holy” to these feelings.

So, thank you, Martin.

NOTE: To go to amazon.com to read reviews of Martin Mellish’s book “A Tai Chi Imagery Workbook: Spirit, Intent and Motion,” or to purchase a copy through my website, click here.

OR: To go to amazon.com to read reviews of “The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi: 12 Weeks to a Healthy Body, Strong Heart & Sharp Mind,” click here.

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Women’s Spiritual Power: Connecting through the Body with the Earth

book-body-of-wisdom[1]During my taiji studies and early forays into qigong, I periodically encountered things that men and women were supposed to do differently. The most common was choosing which hand to put down first when putting one atop the other at the dantian, the energy center below the navel.

I can’t say for sure which hand women are supposed to put down first, because different teachers said different things—and because my Yang-style taiji teacher and his teacher, a Chinese woman revered by her American students, felt it really made no difference.

Still, every time I encountered this or any other gender-specific instruction, I bristled. I was sure the woman’s hand position was less powerful. Black people figured out early on that “separate but equal” wouldn’t work for them, and I didn’t think “different but energetically appropriate” would work for me, either.

I am, after all, the daughter of a feminist born ahead of her time, in 1912, to Bohemian immigrants living in Chicago, a woman who was feisty and smart but hobbled in her pursuit of the American Dream by being a woman. Continue reading

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