If Lao Tzu were traveling the Hangu Pass today, he’d no doubt be strip-searched by security.
Watching my Friday morning Qi Gong students, I see them reach for the qi, eyes closed, bodies rocking slightly as they finish the session with Bamboo Sways In The Wind. Many stand but some, tired by the thirty minute session, sit, backs upright in their folding chairs. None had heard of Qi Gong before. None is younger than 75.
Some had tried the Senior Center Tai Chi class but found it too tiring, too strenuous, too demanding of arthritic hands, artificial knees, and spinal stenosis to continue. But in Qi Gong, they have found a combination of movement and stillness within their sometimes restricted reach. I may have to remind them to keep breathing deeply, nudge them away from trying to do more than they are comfortable with–it’s not easy to “relax” and “move like water” when you’ve done the opposite for seven decades–but after we finish, they laugh about being ready for a nap and there are always questions: Can you show us those acupressure points for headaches again? Is this why my granddaughters always want me to rub their feet? I don’t want to wear the back brace I bought so my posture improves so can Qi Gong help me do this on my own?
We don’t talk about religion or spirituality, but I gather from their comments that most are Christian and good churchgoers. They aren’t seeking an alternative to their monotheism, yet remain open to the idea of meditation and visualization. Not the “hippie transcendence seekers” of the 60’s, these are women who quite simply don’t want their necks to ache, who want to shop for groceries when they’re 80, who might wear sensible shoes but also rock their scarves and rings and joke about their next career as a runway model. While they follow their doctor’s orders, they’re ready to try other modalities. Health is health for them, whether the “fix what’s broken” mechanic’s approach of Western medicine to the “tend to the healthy” gardener’s view of Eastern.
While in Asia the traditions or Taoist and Qi healing go back thousands of years, from the Dao Yin of the Yellow Emporer to the bringing of Zen to China by Bodhidharma, becoming locked into the rigidity long tradition encourages, in America, lack of tradition engenders freedom of approach. My students don’t know The Eight Brocades or The Animal Frolics so aren’t insulted if I don’t teach them but would learn them happily, as well. In America, where we go to Yogalates, Spin Qi and other blended East/West workout classes, “pure” Qi Gong, with its emphasis of strength and suppleness, thousands of forms, and mix of healing, spiritual and martial arts styles steps naturally into our let’s-try-it-all culture. And for those who’ve avoided fitness because of their weight, their bad knees and backs, their lack of flexibility or balance, Qi Gong’s precept that one can and should only do what is comfortable, feels approachable in ways that Zumba, P90X or even Tai Chi doesn’t.
And seniors are not the only group that can benefit from and appreciate the teachings of Qi Gong. Stress-related doctor visits constitute the highest percentage of all appointments; insomnia has been linked to weight gain and high blood pressure; by 2030, statistics project 50% of all Americans will be overweight or obese, many suffering from metabolic syndrome. Qi Gong’s movement, mindfulness, and stress reduction with little space and no special clothing needed could be practiced in offices, homes, parks, even museums and churches, the ideal complement to Western medicine and an antidote to Western lifestyle.
Wolves howl with their pack: Hey, did you see the dead possum over there? Who’s got cub duty tonight? Anyone looking for a good time? Man, that full moon’s so bright we’ll never sneak up on a deer!
Lone wolves howl for themselves: How come I can’t seem to find a date? Why does it seem like I’m the only one who didn’t get that joke the guy on TV just told? What a beautiful full moon; so glad I can appreciate it–by myself, no one to interrupt my reverie.
Not that lone wolves are hermits, spending their lives in caves, contemplating navels. Well, one navel: their own. They do the grocery shopping, work in people-packed cubicles, commute on subways, even go to parties or out to movies with friends. But lone wolves never quite “connect.” In a perfect, or imperfect, world, they would be happy to spend an evening curled up with a cat or three, reading Jane Austen and drinking Gunpowder green tea. That’s the lone wolf’s “comfort zone.”
And yet, not the zone they would always prefer. When they see others schmoozing at the office party or hugging with genuine affection the members of the book club or being the one people go to for everything from comfort in hard times to fun in good, lone wolves don’t feel superior; they feel–lone. In a world that values human connection, lifelong friends and deep bonding with loved ones, the lone wolf will never be fully accepting of being the “odd wolf out.” They will wonder, if not every day, then at times, “Why am I not able to be part of the pack?”
Just as the pack wolf will sometimes tire of having his nose stepped on by another pack member when he’s trying to sleep, the lone wolf will sometimes wish someone would step on her nose.
That’s getting to be so natural that I’m tempted to just go with it for another week before trying another mindfulness exercise but that seems like cheating.
This week, then: Take 3 breaths.
Yup, that’s it. Whenever during the day you think of it, sit back, try to let your shoulders relax and take three deep breaths, inhaling into your abdomen, exhaling so your abdomen relaxes back toward your spine. Consider each 3 breath break as a mini-meditation, so much more doable than trying to set
3 breaths. Deep, slow. Let that Buddha-belly hang out. Let your mind wander–or not. No goals, no wrong or right. Just 3 breaths.
Not that great!! I actually could figure out eating pretty
well–which I’m sure says more about my love of food than being mindful. But
other tasks were nigh unto impossible, especially brushing my teeth. Despite
using an electric toothbrush. Now, that’s pitiful. But I’m still doing one
activity a day left-handed, even if it’s just holding the steering wheel with
that hand instead of the right (cheating because I always used to do that when I
This week, my mindfulness activity is to pick a room in the
house–bedroom or bathroom, kitchen or study, whatever–and follow the mantra
“leave no trace.” To do this, pick your room (you could challenge yourself and
pick more than one) and leave it looking as it did when you entered it or
better. Now, don’t choose your teenage daughter’s bedroom, figuring that it’s
such a mess, you couldn’t possibly leave it looking messier.
finish a meal, if the kitchen is your choice, be sure the dishes are either put
in the washer or that they’ve been washed, dried and put away.
The counter wiped down. The salt and pepper shaker put back. The stray edamame
pods picked up off the floor–ok, maybe that’s just me.
teachings, this “leaving no trace” is associated with the turtle which swishes
its tail back and forth across the sand as it moves, wiping away its footprints.
While you may not be worried about being tracked by predators, the action of
“leaving no trace” still brings your mind to the present and to the moment of
“here and now” in this room, making you appreciate the space you are in, rather
than treating it like a quick stop on a metro platform.
Jan Chozen Bays,
whose book these exercises come from, says that a good reminder to yourself is,
for this week, to tape a little drawing or photo of a turtle to something in the
room. Since I’m choosing the kitchen for my room, my little wooden turtle will
be moved from the living room to the kitchen counter as my reminder.
your “leaving no trace” might spread. I made the bed this morning without even
realizing that I was doing a small “turtle swishing sand” that I don’t usually
bother to do. My “inner smile” was pleased.
Every day for one
week, use your non-dominant hand to do at least one thing. We have such great
dexterity with the hand we usually use that we stop having to think about what
we’re doing. Using the other hand forces us to think more about the task of the
Try brushing your teeth with the non-dominant hand. Eating. Using
the computer mouse. Don’t pick something too easy like turning a page; make it
something that will really throw your brain out of whack, and wake it up. And
while you might want to repeat the same activity each day, try adding a new one
in as well.
I played computer Solitaire the other day using my left hand
for the mouse. I not only couldn’t maneuver well, my brain stopped working. I
couldn’t see the cards I needed to move, no matter how much I tried to
concentrate. When I switched back to my right hand and played the same game,
same combination of cards, I whipped right through it.
Don’t think you’ll remember to do this? Try posting a note on the bathroom mirror ‘Brush Left’ (or right). Wear a ring on an unusual finger or just go with the old standby: tie a string around one of the fingers of your non-dominant hand.
A man is walking through the forest, enjoying
his day. He hears a noise behind him, turns, and sees a tiger running at him,
drooling from its rapacious jaws. The man runs as fast as he can to escape the
tiger and comes to a cliffside with vines growing down it. So he grabs two of
the vines, one in his left, one in his right, hand and begins climbing down,
thinking “Whew, that was close, just barely got away from him.” He can see the
tiger pacing around the top of the cliff but knows it can’t climb down. Then,
when he has gotten about halfway down the cliff, he hears a sound from below. He
looks down, only to see a second tiger, pacing beneath him at the bottom of the
cliff. So now, he can’t climb back up or the first tiger will eat him; and he
can’t keep climbing down, or he’ll be eaten by the tiger below. “That’s ok,” the
man thinks. At least I’m safe here and maybe they’ll get tired and go away.” But
next thing he knows, there’s a little noise right on the vine above him to his
right. The man looks up and there’s a little black mouse, gnawing on the vine in
his right hand. “Now,” the man thinks,”what can I do? I can’t go up or down and
this vine is probably going to snap. Oh well, I still have this other vine.” But
no sooner does he think that, then he hears noise above his left hand. Looking
up, he sees a tiny white mouse nibbling away at that vine. He is truly without
options, it seems: a tiger above; a tiger below; a white mouse destroying one
vine; a black mouse, the other. In that moment of despair, he looks to one side
and sees a plum branch growing out of the cliff with one perfect plum on it. He
reaches out, plucks the plum from the branch and takes a bite of the beautiful
juicy fruit. . .
That’s where the story ends. Wow, that’s like watching
an episode of Kung Fu, huh, grasshopper?
The story is about the
importance of living in the present moment. At one end of our life is birth–the
first tiger–and at the other end is death–the tiger at the bottom of the
cliff. The black and white mice represent day and night, the movement of time.
We can’t go back, we can’t escape, and eventually, the vines will be chewed
through. But in the meantime, there is the plum–the “now.” And that is all we
really can live for.
In a world of work and worry and rush and rampage
(and alliterative fun all around), how can we ever experience the “now.”
Although I’m supposed to be an exercise guru, over the next weeks, I’m going to
make those exercises a little different: exercises in mindfulness. Each week,
I’ll present a new one. Try them, share your experiences with what they did–or
didn’t–do for you. Some have food related components, others don’t. But in one
way or another, they will all be about the plum.