I sometimes surprise myself with how slow I can be.
About eight years ago, I entered Fleet Feet, a shoe store in Chico, CA. Up until that time, I usually paid around $19.99 for my shoes at Big 5. I only went to Fleet Feet because a girl I had started dating worked there and had suggested I upgrade the quality of shoes I wear. So I went.
It was the first time I had been asked to demonstrate how I walk so that a trained salesperson could observe my gait. If I remember correctly, I was told that I under-pronate—that is, I walk in such a way that I wear out the outer soles of my shoes.
I then got sold on a pair of $110 shoes, which were supposed to help with this under-pronating bit. I just knew that they were the most comfortable pair of shoes I had ever worn. And since then, I’ve spent this ridiculous amount of money on shoes every 18- 24 months. I’m supposed to change them more frequently, but as someone who used to go through tubes of shoe-goo to extend the life of $20 shoes, I don’t think I’m going to do better (shorter) than 18 months, despite being a daily walker and sometimes runner.
About 29 years ago, I learned three forms of Tai Chi Chuan and two forms of Qigong, and began practicing daily, usually mixing up the routine to cover all forms I knew.
About 16 years ago, I learned Zhan Zhuang, or standing qigong/meditation, and after noticing the effects, I abandoned all the forms I knew prior, and began practicing only Zhan Zhuang two to three times a day (or about an hour to an hour-and-a-half) for a few years.
Under such regular practice, phenomena that were normally on the periphery of my awareness began to impinge upon the center, and what was beyond imagining began offering glimpses into the periphery. I used to describe it simply as intuition becoming louder. But it was more that unexplainable phenomena would occur, and I wouldn’t think anything of it at the time, until years later.
And maybe I took such a way of being in the world for granted then.
About eleven years ago (or corresponding to when I became an important person, I mean professor), two to three times a day got pared down to once a day. And maybe about six years ago or so (around the time I got tenure), it got down to five times a week. And about two years ago (self-published author!), it got down to hardly ever.
A few months ago (largely unemployed and without my own home,rental or otherwise), I began practicing daily again. I started at 14 minutes a day. I’m now at a little over 30 minutes. Since it’s not that different from sitting around doing nothing because it is just standing around doing nothing, I think I can get it back up to around 45 minutes a day soon!
As with other times, the first month effected a healing crisis of sorts. That is, I usually get sick for the first few weeks of doing Zhan Zhuang. It’s as if it starts a fire in the belly that stirs up all the muck that’s been long lodging in the system, and all this shit comes out into the bloodstream or energy stream, resulting in illness (since I don’t like drinking water all the time)! But once that passes, then the fire churns full-time, or nearly full-time. It becomes harder then for crap to stay in the system. What it feels like is a robust system that doesn’t stay down.
Recently, I visited Besakih Temple, nestled in the foothills of Mt Agung. I went with my friend Cito and his mother.
But this post is about the mountain. And my relation to it.
Just to cast my eyes toward Mt Agung, even from a distance, stirred a sensation in me. A viable rousing or rumbling of energy near my belly. When I finally got up close at the prayer grounds in Besakih temple and looked up toward the mountain, it was like nothing else mattered—just a quietness of mind, and a life force surging through my body and being. There was nothing for me to do, but just to sit there and allow for whatever was happening to occur. Some connection was being forged, and I just assumed that through some initiation such as this, a transmission of sorts was happening. I was reminded of empowerment ceremonies in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. This initiation and transmission, I imagined, would allow me entry into a connection with this place from anywhere in the world with enough practice, concentration, and humility.
I’ve done many meditation retreats, the silent variety that goes on for five, eight, ten, or fourteen days. During such retreats, I would experience deep states of concentration and mindfulness that felt so robust that I thought they would be unceasing. And yet, most of the tranquility and deep concentration would invariably fade in time. Usually within a few days to a few weeks. The only thing that I could discern as remaining was my commitment to daily practice.
After a while, it got kind of tiring. Going deep, then coming out of it. What’s it all for, I wondered.
About seven years ago, I decided that what I did on a daily basis across decades was more important to me than any intensive experiences I had across a week or two, so I stopped going to intensive retreats and focused instead on receiving teachings and deepening my daily practice.
And that became a general principle in my life. Stated as an inequality: Daily practice > Short-term intensive experience.
So when I experience a temporary and profound thing, I don’t think too much of it. But I do ask myself, how can I bring this into my daily life?
Back to Mt Agung.
There was an undeniable strength there. A rumbling. A masculine or outwardly-oriented power that I could feel coursing through my lower torso. (I later learned that the Balinese consider Mt Agung to be male in spirit.)
How could I integrate this quality of being into my life, I wondered. And yet, it wasn’t going to be up to me to figure that out. I mostly just pose the question nowadays, and expect it to be answered somewhere down the line.
The next day, I found myself approaching my qigong practice with a drastically different attitude. Instead of contenting myself with loosely standing there with my arms held in front for 30 minutes, I found myself inexplicably crouching as low as I could, putting great strain on my thigh and calf muscles. In short, I was bringing the sense of strength that I experienced at Mt Agung into how I practiced qigong. I had received the answer to my question already, or as is usually the case, my body had received it before my brain could decipher it.
So here I was crouching low in my qigong practice. And under the strain of increased pressure, I began to notice certain habits that hadn’t been apparent till now!
One of these habits concerns the distribution or balance of weight, not just across the two feet, but within each foot, such as the balance between the front and back, as well as the inside and outside of each foot.
And here, I noticed how much my weight leaned toward the outsides of my feet. I had somehow missed this in all the time I’d been doing qigong, probably because there wasn’t too noticeable a difference in my experience between my usual imbalanced stance and this subtly adjusted evenly balanced one.
But with all the pressure on my legs now, the slightest adjustment away from what was “normal” created enormous strain on my thighs in particular. I noticed how long-neglected muscles suddenly had to work!
Later in the evening, as I was walking about town, I noticed the same habits of weight distribution. So, I began paying better attention to how I placed my weight with each step, and consciously began practicing better balance across each foot. With this, I noticed how pleasurable walking suddenly became. How much more fully my foot was meeting the ground, and how much more grounded I felt. But also, how arriving home from the short walk felt like I had just returned from a long foot massage! How warm and relaxed my feet felt!
I could speak a few things regarding acupuncture meridians that run on the inside and outside of the foot, and how my imbalanced pattern of walking no doubt over-stimulated those on the outside while under-stimulating those on the inside, leading to various imbalances in the body.
But the main point is this: when I walk in this balanced manner, concentrated effort begins to feel effortless. It’s as if walking happens as it’s meant to be done, and there isn’t the same residue of strain I’ve long grown used to. In this way, the simple act of walking becomes a practice of coming ever closer to wu wei, or non-doing, or of things being allowed to take their course, as I’m allowing my weight and my qi to sink more fully to the ground when I walk now.
Today, or more than a week after these initial observations, they still hold. Walking about the crowded streets of Ubud has become a cause for learning how to be while in motion.
So I think to myself: I was given an explicit clue in that shoe store long ago. It never occurred to me then to make any changes in how I walked. Instead, I bought a pair of shoes that allowed me to continue on with my imbalanced manner of walking, and thus, being.
I’m not sad for this. It’s just how it is. But I’m thankful also for the gift from Mt Agung!
When we change the way we walk, we change the way we interact with the world around us. That much I know.
Feeling the surge of power and losing myself in the mystery of Mt Agung is fun to say. But it’s of little value in and of itself to me. Finding a way to integrate what I experienced into how I live on a daily basis is what will change reality within and around me.
If I change something in my mind and heart, the world around me shifts with that interior change. That is, I make a change within, and watch something change out there. If I don’t like the change, I try something different. If I do, then I see what continuing it does. It’s like a game. And I always keep in mind the idea of the “healing crisis,” that initial appearances aren’t always telling of what’s really happening underneath,that healing can look worse at first. So I try to remain patient with how things go.
And of course, changing something within doesn’t happen overnight for most of us, certainly not for me. Instead it happens owing to long repetition across months and years of effort and persistence, thus, the emphasis on daily practice across years and decades, hopefully lifetimes. And that’s my deepest hope for myself. My happiness is in my commitment to showing up as such.
A summary of this post as a tie-in to the theme of this blog:
Experts and duress both reveal to us our biases and habits. These “habits” constitute the aggregate that is a human. Without such habits, there is no longer the conflagration we call self. The blowing out of this fire is called nirvana.
When shown our habits, we can either attend to the hard work of undoing them, or find ways to subvert the called-for work. If we choose the latter, we lose an opportunity toward the deepest of all dreams, which is to be completely undone… to be extinguished… to be gone, far beyond.
gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi soha…
(Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone utterly beyond—enlightenment. So be it…)
—from the Heart Sutra.