Tuesday, December 18, 2007

disappearing parts

So I've managed to maintain my one hour practice through a snowstorm with a seven year old. I disappear into my room with my ipod and let him play football on his Playstation.
Yesterday I felt parts of my body disappear. And then I felt something like a post of energy, or a beam pop up through the vertical center of my body. I've read of this disappearing thing. It was less like disappearing than losing my sense of my body. Like I felt like my shoulder was up near my ear, even though it wasn't, and then I lost any real sense of where the hell my left leg was. It's a little like that book Harold and the Purple Crayon. You feel like parts of you are being erased and redrawn by a different part of your mind.
The trick of course is not freak out, because if you do you'll just end up coming back to the reality that you're used to. That's why the discipline is important, you have to allow different levels of consciousness to feel natural and to feel real. Sometimes I feel like I'm on Star Trek and I'm just waiting patiently to be transported into another dimension, but there's just something a bit rusty about my transporter.
No hurry. I realized today I'm 44. If I keep myself healthy and follow in the genetic footsteps of my father's side of the family, I've got a good 50 years, maybe longer to master this.

Friday, December 14, 2007

accepting power

It's 6:30 a.m. My city is covered in snow. My son sleeps. I've been up since 4 a.m., standing since 5:30. Recently I've taken segmented sleep as an invitation to relax, instead of a symptom of insomnia. Ever since I read Jeff Warren's great The Head Trip, I've changed my mind about insomnia. Before the invention of electricity, humans generally went to sleep pretty early, woke up early, but also woke up for a while in the middle of the night. Nature intends for us to have this quiet solitary time, I'm convinced.

I've been waking up early, so I've been doing much of my Zhang Zhuan in the pre-dawn hours. One of the hardest challenges of this project, this six months of one hour standing, is to accept real relaxation into my body, into my mind. I rarely feel any real pain anymore, unless I try a truly challenging pose like, the double spiral, where I hold my arms out behind me. I may try some others. But right now my challenge is to just let myself feel the relaxed buzzing magnetic energy for an hour.

I know it sounds weird to say it's hard to accept pleasant relaxed energy. But when you're used to stress, emotional, physical, etc. the body actually resists a true release from this. It yearns for it, but it also flees from it.

For me the experience of Zhan Zhuang has been like forming a path. Watching it grow over, forming it again, leaving it go, forming it until it is now a permanent part of my brain, this path. I don't think it could ever grow over now. But that doesn't mean that I dont' occassionally abandon it.

Right now I'm trying to build something more like a road.

Monday, December 10, 2007

choosing to change

I have a theory, that 20 minutes of standing is enough to maintain the health you have. 40 minutes builds energy and an hour builds power. So six months of standing for an hour a day means a decision to become more powerful. In Zhan Zhuan, though, that doesn't mean that you've become someone more able to manipulate the world around you. It means something like, you've decided to ally yourself with a power that few people know or understand, this power of gravity and electrical energy that you become more able to detect the more you relax into it.
I can stand for an hour with my arms raised in front of me. I don't feel the strain because it doesn't feel to me that I'm using my own power to hold my arms up. For one thing I've learned to arrange my bones in their sockets in such a way that I feel like one of my son's action figures simply posed so that my feet are flat and my body is balanced. I also feel a kind of magnetic energy in my body that holds those arms up as though they are soft metal in a magnetic force field. What I have to do is learn to relax my body and my mind into this force that will hold me up. Think about what kind of force keeps a tree rooted to the gound, and pushes it up towards the sky as it grows. Imagine being able to feel the presence of that force and that's what the chi of Zhan Zhuang feels like.
But you can't push it. Back when I first started this, about fifteen years ago, I pushed myself to stand for an hour. What I felt was probably closer to the experience of injecting a gram cocaine, than the gentle energy of growing trees. It was exciting, but derailing. I've actually read of such a thing as chi kung diletantes, people who become obsessed with consciousness altering, charisma building and power manipulation.
I'm not interested in that. I made a choice a few years back to start slow and to build slowly. This was hard. I wanted to escape into an hour, but for the first few months I wouldn't allow myself more than five, ten, fifteen minutes. It was the daily practice that was more important to me than the mind zap.
So what I feel in my brain now, as I approach the commitment to an hour a day, is something closer to a deep sense of release. Kind of like what you feel when a good masseuse breaks down the tension in a muscle. I feel the energy of the earth breaking down the tension in my brain. Sometimes I even feel it being cracked like a knuckle.
I try my best to be mindful, to be centered in the now, and all that other meditation crap. But on a good day, I don't even have to try. I get to a point where I feel like I took a mindfulness pill. Clear, undistracted awareness, pure relaxed consciousness is simply a physical part of my being.
The way I explained it to somebody once: I feel like I've evolved from being a monkey on a tree, to being the tree observing the monkey, to being tree free of the damn monkey.
Of course this reverses everything we believe about evolution, that animals are more complex life forms that vegetables. On a good day, when I feel I can see the world in its rich complexity far more easily than a I can a as a complex, busy monkey, I'm no longer so convinced of this evolutionary hierarchy.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

early morning

Woke up at 5 a.m this morning and knew I wasn't going to be getting back to sleep, so I stood for an hour. I can do this easily now. I can do this with my arms raised up to shoulder level. I can do this with my arms raised above shoulder level in a kind of circle above my head. I have a hard time doing this with my arms spread out wide behind me. But if I can pull this off for about five minutes then the force in my arms is stronger when I hold them out in front of me.

The physical pain is really something that I barely concern myself with anymore. Mostly because it isn't even there. But the emotional pain. In the stillness of the morning, in the quiet, it's hard for me not to notice that I'm unhappy. Not unhappy with standing, but unhappy in my life. Unhappy and worried.

I fear that my lack of ambition is catching up with me, and I'm not clear on how standing in a magnetic force field everyday for an hour is going to change that.

The problem is that there's this voice, not like a crazy disassociated voice, or anything, it's my voice I know. But it's my voice strong and clear telling me that this is what I'm supposed to be doing. More than that, okay this is really embarrassing, it's telling me that this is the purpose of my life. To do this, and to do this by myself. It's not telling me that I should go and become an expert in zhang zhuang, find a mentor, learn more. It's telling me that I should just stand. Stand here everyday. Change and write about that.

So for the time being that's what I'm going to do.

Friday, December 7, 2007


I've never pulled it off, the six months outside for an hour at dawn. And it's not something I'm going to pull off now, or possibly ever. First because it's winter in Montreal and dawn happens sometime around when my seven year old son and I are eating breakfast, just before he heads off to school. Maybe some year I will train him to make his own breakfast while I stand in a dark cold park imitating leafless trees. But not this year. Thank God, because last week we had a snowstorm and several days of gentle flurries that yielded a good three feet of snow.

I have pulled off six months of standing, from about twenty minutes to a half an hour, and I would say that I changed. I changed in gentle, pleasant ways. I lost about ten pounds and have managed to keep it off without much struggle. The journalism I do for a living comes more easily and seems to attract more readers. During the time I started daily standing, about two years ago, the perfect apartment, a lovely school for my son, and a neighborhood I adore seemed to magically enter our lives.

But other problems I've always had continue to plague me. I've been working on a novel for two years that has not seemed to evolve beyond a box of scrappy drafts. The bit of debt I seem to be going into each month has now added up to more than I make in a year, which fortunately isn't much. Whatever romance occassionally enters my life tends to fizzle up pretty fast. And the basic skills of household organization are as mysterious, exotic and elusive to me as musical compostion probably is to the average North American. I do try, but I just don't seem to get it, and as I write this, mess surrounds me.

Last year I went back to the Chinese community center, but Ringo had given up teaching to devote more time to his family and the fast food chinese concession stand he owned in Le Faubourg Saint Catherine. In his place was Ron, who had always taught the Saturday classes, and now taught both weekend mornings. I happened to join back in on a day when Ron was teaching the vertical palm trick. I proudly announced that I did this everyday, sometimes close to thirty minutes, and he received this news with a disappointing amount of indifference. "There's a saying in Chinese, that goes something like, the chi doesn't start boiling until 40 minutes." Ron, you may have guessed is not Chinese. He's actually an articulate, excellent teacher, but he has an arrogance that I've never found quite as charming as Ringo's. He shrugged with a slightly condescending grin and told me that 20 to 30 minutes is considered just playing.

So I began to work towards 40 minutes with a sense of commitment that comes and goes. Today I can stand longer, much longer than I used to, in a range of poses that would probably astonish and impress many people. But with greater skill has come greater resistance. 20 minutes was something I could commit to daily. 40 minutes feels like a sense of purpose that I'm not entirely sure I want to have.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

An adventure in standing still

About twelve years ago I set out on a big adventure. My boyfriend and I decided to drive from Salt Lake City, Utah to wherever we ended up, which turned out to be Costa Rica, six months later.

That adventure is a whole other story, which maybe I will tell at some point during the course of this blog. Before we set out, however, we took our re-modelled school bus out on a test drive from where we were living, Montreal, to Boston. While there, I came across a cheap book in a remainder pile. It was a book on Zhan Zhuan, a type of Chinese meditation that essentially involves not much more than standing in the same place until every fibre of your body begs for movement.

I'd had a taste of what Zhan Zhuang had to offer a few years back when I'd started Tai Chi lessons in the basement of the Montreal Chinese community center. One day our instructor, Ringo, made us stand in a horse stance (legs shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent, as though riding a horse) palms facing each other at waist level. We stood until we could feel a kind of magnetic force between the two palms, which really didn't take very long. Ringo, who came from Hong Kong and seemed to have been studying tai chi since birth, had a way of putting things simply. "Stand like this everyday for an hour outside at sunrise for six months, and you will change." He wouldn't elaborate, partly because his English wasn't great. Ringo had a way of using his poor English to his advantage. He had a boot camp rigour when it came to repeating particular chi kung exercises. Just when we got to the point where our joints were ready to seize up, he would shout "one last times." There was no point in correcting his grammar because "one last times" really meant as many more times as he whimsically chose to inflict on us, which could be five or fifty.
So there wasn't much to gain from prodding him on how we would change after six month of daily sunrise zhan zhuan. The only important thing was that we would change, and from his tone, it sounded like there would be no changing back.