Here is an exchange from a member of the group I have the privilege to run. There are a lot of extremely talented people involved, as reflected in this person’s process described below. I have omitted the name of the person.
I’ve had a question that’s been coming up for me recently. One thing that’s been really valuable with the qi gong and classes is finding these slow movements to explore this energy. With Zen, in my experience, you’re often taught to move as quickly as possible (more or less). Sometimes, this can be great, just the tanden going and everything flying around it. But often, if I’m moving fast, it becomes harder to move with this energy. I’m sure it’s just my own immaturity in this energy work, but I feel like when I’m really moving fast is when it’s easiest for me to revert to old habits, for energy to rise, etc. I guess it’s sort of an extension of my question about sports from the other day (would love to hear your thoughts on that as well!).
Anyway, given that in the monastery I’m assuming you had to move faster and more consistently than I ever have to in my daily life, I’m curious how you learned to work with that.
Intensive’s been great. I’ve got a 7 day retreat at Dharma Drum towards the end of july and then volunteering for a few days there as well, so I’ll miss the end of the intensive unfortunately. But it’ll be great to dive into sesshin again.
See you in class tomorrow!
Such a great question! It’s really a topic I love. I actually wrote up a long blog about it, but I think I’d rather try to be succinct.
You wrote: “I’ve had a question that’s been coming up for me recently. One thing that’s been really valuable with the qi gong and classes is finding these slow movements to explore this energy. With Zen, in my experience, you’re often taught to move as quickly as possible (more or less). Sometimes, this can be great, just the tanden going and everything flying around it. But often, if I’m moving fast, it becomes harder to move with this energy. I’m sure it’s just my own immaturity in this energy work, but I feel like when I’m really moving fast is when it’s easiest for me to revert to old habits, for energy to rise, etc. I guess it’s sort of an extension of my question about sports from the other day (would love to hear your thoughts on that as well!).Anyway, given that in the monastery I’m assuming you had to move faster and more consistently than I ever have to in my daily life, I’m curious how you learned to work with that. “
I really think it is like that. We find this ability to connect and feel the energy in the stillness and then the slow movements. But then it is hard to do that when we go and walk around or move fast. This is really common. And it shows that you are feeling it rather than an idea of the energy. It’s something alive for you. Something real. I think continuing to feel that aliveness is key. Like, the inspiration behind looking at and finding it is part of it.
It was the same for me. I had found something so real and huge going on, and then when I would move, my ability to process it got frazzled. But for me, I knew that if I did not find a way to process it all of the time, I would get sick again. It was a life on the line thing for me, as I had almost lost my eyesight. I saw that me being out of sync with it had caused my illness. So it was desperate for me.
So, I just started moving slower all of the time. I stopped running to sanzen. And I tested how I could move and keep it going. I tested this all day long. I saw that if I stayed deeply relaxed, I could stay with this processing of energy. And I found that it was not just moving slowly, but my urgency, my way of being that got in the way of everything I did. When I would use my body, I saw that I would tense up to do the simplest of activities. I also saw that it was not so much about moving slowly. Often if I moved in a relaxed way, staying connected and in that big energy, I would move as quickly as before. More harmonious. More free. More real. So it was my relationship to reality which caused me to lose it, or work with it. Again, being in this fullness is so powerful that we don’t need to rush. We even may bend space and time because of it. I am not joking. That’s the secret of the monastery. That’s what you see. You see people creating reality as they unify.
I saw that the present moment, if I became it, if I melted into it, it was the energy I had been trying to keep going. So, becoming the present moment, as it continually shifted, became my way of keeping it going. When the process is something we feel, it does not have to be really complicated. It can be, I feel it, and I do whatever it takes to feel it and work with it all of the time. It means I don’t have to go anywhere and cultivate anything. The tanden and the present moment became the same thing over time, as my awareness deepened. The deeper states of mind arise out of that fullness. The samadhi states also are a part of the whole system harmonizing. So the body also harmonizes over time. And the more we can relax, the more it happens. The practice gives us constant feedback. It’s a cellular process we can engage with all of the time. And it’s real real real. It works on all levels. Our relationships, our interacting, our body, everything. It is all included in this process. It really is like our bodies become teachers to follow the Divine laws of nature. And this spirit that comes through, the ki, the tanden, are ways to use and share this with everyone. To be useful. So, I guess I mean, it’s all one thing.
I don’t claim to be perfect in all of this. And I am constantly working on the body stuff. Actually I have had it the worst. That’s what has made me so obsessed. So grateful. Incredibly humbling process. But I do know this process so well. It is mysterious and real.
As for sports and martial arts, dance, well, I think they are a marvelous venue to explore this freedom of spirit in motion. We test and feel when we have it and when we do not. This stuff is so fascinating. It is for me! But I had to discover it. I’d be dead if I hadn’t cracked the whole thing open.
Here are some other notes I was putting together for a blogpost on this subject, but decided to just put them here in response to the question. There is some repetition, but I hope some people find it useful.
I love this topic. It’s maybe what I really love the most to talk about.
For me, I first really discovered this second breath and its relationship to the tanden, the body, the environment, etc because I was sick laying on the floor in the hondo. I discovered it because everything I was doing was not working. I was in the way. And when I stopped doing that. When I gave up and really sensed in to the present moment, I saw something bigger in the vacuum of my experience. Like, stopping, the present moment filled up my whole being. I saw that my body was really just a relationship to the present moment. It would either exist as harmony with that, or in the way. And I saw that I had gotten sick because I was not in harmony with this true body, this huge present moment. I had caused the sickness partly through my unskillful way of being. And so my practice really shifted after that. I knew there was a big process, this bigger life, there all of the time. And this was a continuous relationship.
But, when I moved, I saw that I had a hard time staying with this present moment filling me up. Like, I would move and it was too much noise for me to stay with this fullness penetrating me, creating my body in space. I saw that I had to delicately learn to work with staying with this hugeness moving through me. I knew that if I did not, I would just block it again and get sick again. So, the moment to moment necessary physical exploration in staying open to this huge present moment became my life. I had no choice. And the physical practice of learning how to allow it through us, the felt sense of that, in all of its nuances, is the way that we learn to stay with it as we move. And the best part, the biggest part, is that it is trying to happen. The present moment is always moving and harmonizing. This sense of me even doing it obliterates as we go into the felt sensing. There really can’t be a me and this thing happening.
One metaphor I like to use is that of riding a bike with gears. I remember as a teen I had a bike and it would get kind of stuck in between gears and the chain would jump and slide out of place. I found that when I changed gears I had to have the right touch with the pedals or I would have this slipping of the chain. Well, my sense of the internal harmony and filling up of the present moment was like that. I had to find the delicate sweet spot with my felt sense in order to allow this huge present moment through me. And because it was trying to happen, it got easier and easier over time. As I disappeared, this different freedom emerged.
And as I allowed that fullness through more and more, the deeper states of mind would naturally come to fruition. This fullness of energy, fullness of spirit, bagan to unify my entire being consistently. I was involved in a big process. It was like a green light. All arrows pointed to this YES. I either let it through me, or I suffered. My relationship with the present moment was huge, or it was inner/outer conflict. People think that getting to samadhi or deeper states of mind is some game in getting sharper or smarter. They are actually a natural fruition of us disappearing in this huge moment.
I can say that this whole process is incredibly humbling and sweet. What happens when we begin to let this bigger life through is that we feel so much. The flood gates come open. We have to live wide open. All of the sadness, all of the anger, joy, etc, they can’t be hidden behind the filters we normally hold up. We are like a blade of grass blowing in the wind. Like translucent, penetrated, permeable. We are the center of all things happening.
The body changes as this process deepens. It has to change. In order for this process to unify, the body must open up to it. It is a long process of integrating. Decades long. The dantiens open naturally in this process. In my training, we focused on the lower dantian (Tanden in Japanese). And the lower body training, legs, the ground, the tanden, all in a healthy way open up the upper body.
The chest/heart energy often opens in a mature way over a long period of time after the lower dantien opens. The middle dantian is volatile, full of sadness, anger, and joy! Big energy! It opens and slams shut. This can be a non-linear process for a long time. But with consistent real practice things change.
The base of the skull and throat are another place that often needs a lot of time to open. It can open and shut, work itself out over a long time. Patience is really needed in this process. And once the throat and base of the skull open, then the energy pretty easily rises up and permeates the whole system, melting down and bathing the whole system. This process can’t be rushed. It’s lifelong. Our shit will have to be faced and worked with in this process. Slowly we’ll grow our body through the top of the head.
No one can really teach us how to open up in this process. It starts to happen. It has to happen once it is started. It is self teaching. Insights emerge as we go
As for the question about sports, well, I think of them as just a magnificent laboratory to work on allowing this yes through my system. In fact, sports were the thing which gave me a hint of what this connecting was all about back in my childhood. I would be playing a sport, like playing sandlot football, and sometimes while running, I felt like my whole being came into oneness. Everything became this YES. And everyone around me was somehow beside this unity. They were not experiencing it yet. Time would slow down. Everything became easy. So, I think sports can be a great laboratory to play with and physically explore harmonizing with this great life energy.
In sports and in moving in general, instead of diving toward the object with our awareness we are trying to throw or catch or hit with a racket, how can we stay as relaxed as possible? Any tension we have while playing will get in the way of this fullness, this natural clarity of spirit shining. This is really tricky, because we don’t believe that this is true. We think, I’ll stay relaxed for a while, but actually I have to tense up to win or to be effective. This is a big leap to get over this. But for the real power to come through, we have to stay relaxed. Not reaching out. Not tensing up.
Staying back while we are moving forward. When we move from the koshi, the lower back, we don’t need to dive toward what we are doing. Staying back is totally bewildering. We think have to charge at what we are doing. But there is a strange process which develops when we stop reaching out.
Moving from the ground. Use the ground as a wall. Stack the body from the ground. Use the ground as something solid to push off of when moving. Keep the body aligned and totally relaxed. Use the legs to move the upper body. It can be like we are not using the arms at all.
Heavy elbows. Elbows, knees, aligned. All in a line.
The body filled up is the key. Relaxing is counterintuitive. But the filling up is clear. Feeling what is happening, actually happen, sometimes it feels like we have to focus intensely to relax.
I guess what I see is that whatever I feel, what I am feeling is my practice. And feeling that is the thing that is happening. I have to do what is happening. I have to feel what is happening. Constantly. The present moment is a continual relationship. My ability to be honest enough to feel without filter is the way I open up to the most sublime energy. We think that in order to go deeper we have to do something else, but in my process, just feeling the most intimately what is happening, the most raw and real, is what has moved mountains for me. This could be called actual relaxing.
First of all, thanks so much for all these comments. These were really really helpful, just getting the confirmation that it’s OK to move slow, which seems ridiculously obvious but isn’t in the context of how zen often looks. I think it’s just very useful to have someone to check in with on our rebellious instincts, to say whether it makes sense or is just totally wrong. So it’s just great to know that you slowed down, that you found ways to move slowly in the monastery when you had to and it was part of the process.
It also really makes sense how this process also ultimately has nothing to do with moving slow, because what has to slow down is this deep urgency, and when we can pull back and not reach out, on a deep level, then the outward expression is free. I think I’ve definitely felt this at times. In general, recently I’ve been really trying to submerge myself in this process of staying in neutral and not reaching out. It just keeps getting deeper – not just staying in neutral with muscles but also with subtle pressures, instincts, physical impulses… and when I’m in that, there’s a freedom of expression to the rest of my body that isn’t restricted by speed. I think what happens is when I lose that, rather than slowing down and really working on reconnecting, I just keep going and the gears start to grind, but I tell myself that this isn’t supposed to be a time to slow down.
So, yeah, you’ve given me a really useful encouragement in what has to be done. And the challenge. Recently (just to keep updating you), in combination with staying neutral, I’ve found that sometimes this slips into dropping the energy I have, and then I can become a little limp. So I’ve found it to be a process of trying to not reach out while also allowing the energy to express itself and not turn “don’t reach out” into some sort of rigid doctrine that kills everything else. I think this is really where kufu is so important. We can’t depend solely on an idea or our practice will become dualistic.
Another challenge has been that in really going deep with this work of not reaching out, I’ve found so much anxiety surfacing, which to me feels like my body reacting to not having its usual opportunity to try to control. Obviously, I’ve in the past gone through levels of letting go, of relaxing into reality, of opening up, etc.. and past breakthroughs have broken down this instinct for control. But I guess with all the energy work it’s really made it possible to be like this in daily life more, and my body just feels so unprepared for that. It’s very uncomfortable. I’ve had days this week where I’ll walk around with a terrible pit in my stomach all day. When I push more in practice, it disappears, like the presence of the self just makes the body less anxious. How frustrating! But there’s no point to pushing anymore, so what can I do but weather this anxiety? I don’t know. I haven’t found any great way to work with this anxiety except to try not to see it as something bad, to trust it and jump on its bandwagon, trust that its momentum is what needs to happen. But it’s not easy.
Anyway, I’m going on this retreat on Saturday, and we’ll see how it manifests in that context. As always, so grateful for your comments, the group, the wonderful work everyone’s putting into this training together.
Love what you wrote. Really insightful.
Yes, the true work. Facing that anxiety. Going through that gives us real tools and real compassion to actually be helpful and useful. As for me now, I’m not usually phased by any emotional problem someone comes to me with. I’ve seen the devil. Walked around with the devil. Through this process, through all of the challenges of this process, I’m somehow okay. In the midst of the worst, light is still there. Never goes away. That’s such a gift for people. To be not moved around by outward circumstance. And it only really comes from letting go of control. It will be there at all times, and we won’t lose it or be afraid to lose it. It takes time. It’s totally worth it.
Great stuff. Thanks again!
I hope this exchange was helpful for you. If you have questions, please ask them. It is often the good questions which help others as well as bring out a good discussion. Thanks and please keep going!