18 February 2017

another letter

Below is another recent letter, edited for privacy and clarity, with my Zen friend. We, like many other Taoist, Buddhist and T'ai Chi folks, find the constant doing and interfering of ordinary behaviour to be unsatisfactory. In our own ways we seek to find a healthier, less frenetic relationship to the earth, the world and ourselves. Aspects of our continuing conversation are hopefully interesting to you T'ai Chi friends. In explaining many things that are said without words in T'ai Chi, I find I am clarifying for myself some of the subtle ways of our art, and how it relates to inner and outer life. If it's not of interest, don't worry. I hear there are other things to read on the web, and also many nice pictures of cats.

Hi B, I just found my notes from Alan Watts, quoted in a book I read last week from an Aberdeen writer Esther Woolfson: his take on wu wei was 'masterly inactivity' and also 'knowing when not to act'. Both of these are wonderful too and flesh-out the small list we have going here seemingly encompassed by the tiny diad 'wu wei'.

Regarding your recent email, whilst working on drawings the last few days I have also been thinking about the non-doing aspect of doing (if there can be such a thing). Excuse sketchiness of thoughts, as I am sort of working it out whilst writing...

My current feeling is that it is possible to make almost any work in either helpful / skilful or unhelpful / unskilful ways, and yet to the observer, no obvious difference would be visible. Using natural and much less harmful materials to make my drawings is certainly part of why I feel I can even draw just now, rather than filling the world with more stuff, however 'artistic' that stuff. It will be interesting over the next year to see how it seems to be leaving overt traces in the world again, as opposed to the momentary and transient air movements my T'ai Chi creates. Part of me has begun to think that no matter what folks do, it's all too much (too many people, individual actions somehow of no use on a macro level). This is purely on a population size basis, and yet it seems to be the only thing that most people do not wish to address, but truly the most over-arching thing on a planetary level. My 'natural' inclinations seem so much less important than this. So an aspect of me is inclined to stop doing anything, or just camp at some worthy protest against natural places that are being despoiled, for instance to oppose fracking here in the UK, and add my personal life force to the great non-doing - saving wilderness from anything more being done to it at all. I am sure that would be non-action in action... however, many have already been-there-done-that. What has been achieved? I am still under-read and under-informed about this.

On a personal level, even that could become another justification, another cog in the mental machination. This aspect of things is very hard to talk about with anyone who doesn't do some form of internal practice. From the outside, if one devoted one's life to a particular cause, everything could be impeccable, and someone would ask 'where's the problem? You're doing a good thing'. Yet one could know, deeply, that the same grasping tendencies or the same averse behaviour was underneath it all. It is certainly possible to do both meditation and T'ai Chi in unhealthy ways.

The Harari books 'Sapiens' and 'Homo Deus' have short circuited many of my glib words on following inner knowing and feeling, as I now learn that similar justifications are verbally given by the racist or the techno-futurists for why they do what they do. It is necessary to find a more rigorous way to speak of why I do what I do, or rather, why non-doing is so important. I do not yet quite have these words, and I need to work towards them. In T'ai Chi class, it's so clear why one might choose non-resistance: as the nature of the art means we get immediate physical feedback from the person we are working with. In conversation or writing it's so much harder. I can't just hit the reader and say 'see, it would be so much less painful if you'd have turned and yielded!' That would be an interesting book, though. 

Many people only think benefit comes from something having been done, from a medicine having been taken. They find it almost impossible to see if something has gone well because no-one did anything, or that they got better because they just waited a while. They don't have anything to point at, no-one to praise or blame. Most of my job is spending a few years with a person pointing out when they don't interfere with things and it goes really well. I  say 'Yes!' and they invariably say 'but I didn't do anything!'.  It's an art, like stalking some rare shy bird, to learn to recognise the feeling of non-doing. At first it's in retrospect only, by seeing the mess we get into by struggling, and the comparative calm when we don't. Later there is actually a flavour, or subtle feeling to it whilst it's taking place, but I am not yet able to put it into words. Maybe it should not be put into words. Actually, it definitely shouldn't be put into words, as that would make us think we had 'grasped' it...

And further, some people love a struggle, they love a fight, they love tension, they don't feel better when it's all calm. For them, drama is fun for it's own sake. Liu I Ming advises the Taoist to steer clear of folks like this, but what if they run most large countries? What if they're your boss?

For now, I feel we must live the lives we lead, make the art we make, and not dilute or undercut it in fear, that's for sure, as we are in many ways in a battle with an ingenious and ferocious opponent. Our stories will be co-opted, our language and imagery mined for effect or advertising and our very hearts sold back to us by the commercial web whether we had meant to commodify our unconscious or not. My first inkling is that we need to have conversations in groups, in private and not to report any of it online. [the irony of this sentence being included here is not lost on me...] Gatherings of actual people in real life, and conversations on the phone or in letters or by email will also be of use. I don't know where this would lead, but I agree with Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder that real community and in-person trustful relationships are the best way to create lasting beneficial change. 

In the T'ai Chi Classics, (which are basically re-writes of the Tao Te Ching for martial artists) it says a thing that jumps to mind right now: 'Don't enter the competition'.
Also my Grandmaster, when discussing the arguments raging in the T'ai Chi world (it's like every other world - literary, music, art...) said: 'It's just dogs barking'.

Yet if I step back completely, do I leave the world to the dogs? What is it to care and not to care?
People are 'like straw dogs to the sage', according to Lao Tzu. And as I romantically think of my friends on the river today feeding the swans, apparently, I am some way from being like this.

17 February 2017

Happy International Cat Day!

The T'ai Chi Classics say:
'Walk like a cat'

I was just remembering visting John Kells at Blakeney many years ago where his beloved beautiful cats had a huge French 'sleigh' style bed all of their own. They seemed very happy, perhaps verging on smug. 

Fees for London classes with Mark

For the first time in 21 years Mark has raised the price for coming to a second class in the week, from £5 to £10. It's still £5 for the second class if you already pay concession fees at your regular class.

15 February 2017

Shorter session this Thursday

As the bowlers are in the main hall the Thursday session at Monymusk on 16th February will be in the Small Hall from 8-10pm only.

14 February 2017

The Wisdom of Insecurity

Written in the 1951 yet sounding utterly contemporary, Alan Watt's classic is as helpful now as it's ever been. Finding it hard to live in anxious unsure times is nothing new. The pdf is widely available online, or you can buy a copy as it's still in print.


What a difference a day makes...
We had plenty of comedy moments making these yesterday. All that it now requires is patience. I must get some of that. 

Wu Wei

I have been corresponding with a Zen / writer friend about Wu Wei. It was originally translated literally into English as 'Non-doing'. In English this has a kind of nihilistic, static and fatalistic flavour that does not exist in the original. (This ia almost as unhelpfully rendered as the T'ai Chi word 'Peng' as 'Ward-Off', a term that tells you far more about early 20th C colonial British than it does one of the fundamentals of Chinese Internal Martial arts.)

Here's a few more helpful variations of wu wei (and wei wu wei), and I would be very happy to receive any more you find. 

Masterful inactivity
Knowing when not to act
Uncontrived action
Doing without doing
Effortless action
Natural action
Not forcing

These are all clear and helpful pointers when applied to T'ai Chi Ch'uan and partnerwork, as well as to many other pursuits in life. 
My personal favourite - Cleary's 'uncontrived action'.

Aberdeenshire weekend

Thanks to all for a really good weekend.
Working on sword applications. 
Long Form applications.
Marie's new sword is lovely, and as some of you have asked about upgrading your swords, here's a link: 

See you all next month.

06 February 2017

Busy with good things

You may be wondering where I have been, as I am rarely online and have missed a few classes...

I have been teaching a lot of 121s this year, which is a great joy. Do get in touch if you'd like one here by the river. Soon we'll be outside in the fresh air without getting chilly. There is always tea and a cosy fire if we do get cold.

Other work has included teaching introductions to T'ai Chi at various events and places of work, which has been interesting and rewarding.

I am in the middle of illustrating a new hardback edition of Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' with the publishers Unbound. It really is a dream commission, as 'The Wake' is one of my all-time favourite novels, and his follow-up 'Beast' is also a must-read, more of which in a later post. I have 6 more drawings to do this week before I feel I have the portfolio pretty much ready. I will tell you more about how you can get involved in the near future. It's going to be a very beautiful colour edition and include a section at the back about how I made the tools, brushes, pens, inks and paints from all natural, pre-Norman conquest available materials. There will also be photos and a bit of text about it in the next edition of Dark Mountain.

I have written the lyrics and melodies, then recorded the parts and harmonies for 4 songs for a Japanese producer called Mojage. There will be an LP coming out this spring. He knew my work with Susumu Yokota and Rothko, and somehow tracked me down - no easy task as I no longer have a music site anywhere on the web, and am erroneously listed as 'a London poet'. 'Yeah, right' is probably the best response to that bit of fake info. I will post a link to the LP details when I get them.

So it's been a busy and creative late winter so far. Looking forward to seeing all the Scots for T'ai Chi this weekend too.

Summer will return

Here's a lovely photo from the last summer workshop. A reminder that shorts and T-shirts (and kilts and sandals) will once again be enough to wear to class. It's pouring with rain here. Even the swans are getting out of the main downpour. 

I will post all the details for this year's event next month, but the dates for this and all workshops are already on the blog, use the search box or scroll back a few months. Same venue, last week of July as usual. 

New Yang Style Long Form class at The T'ai Chi Centre

New students who have finished the Short Form with Mark or elsewhere are welcome to begin Long Form from Tuesday 6.30pm, at Trinity Church Hall, Trinity, Rd Tooting. Tooting Bec tube is 3 mins walk. Get in touch with any queries. usual venue, prices and times.

Short Form beginners will continue concurrently, The Dance continues after tea break.

Each first Tuesday of the month will have Sabre and Sword study instead of Long Form and Dance, Short Form is not affected.

February workshops, Aberdeenshire

This month's workshops with Caroline are this coming weekend 10-12th February. All workshops are at Balvack, except for Weapons which is at Fetternear Hall. Great River students of any level are particularly welcome to the Saturday sessions.

Friday 7-10pm: Weapons, including Sabre for beginners 7-8pm (£5).
Saturday 1-4pm: Short Form, and related study
Saturday 5.30-8.30pm: Partnerwork
Sunday 1-4pm: Long Form
Sunday 5.30-8.30pm: Advanced Studies and Dance

The price is £16 (concs available) per 3 hr session. Please bring food to share on Saturday and Sunday. Get in touch with your instructor if you need travel directions or feel free to contact me with any other questions.

All the dates for the 2017 Aberdeenshire workshops are available here

Sabre and Sword this week in London

...will take place tomorrow at Tuesday class, and Sword only on Thursday.

There will also be the first Sunday workshop of the year at the usual venue on Sunday 26th February. It will be on Sabre. Any new sabreurs can join then, so if you've been waiting to have a go, come along. All you need is to have learned the whole Short Form. Students from other schools may get in touch to see if they are eligible.

01 February 2017

Shorter session this Thursday

As the bowlers are in the main hall the Thursday session at Monymusk on 2nd February will be in the Small Hall from 8-10pm only.


Just a little heads-up for the instructors. There's still a few folks out there trying a scam where they get the T'ai Chi/ yoga / fitness teacher to book their mum in for some lessons when she 'comes to the country for a few months'. Arcane bank arrangements will be suggested. If you follow through, you'll get fleeced. The mum does not exist, it's a generic scam to get your bank details but can sound so plausible. 

However, once I did end up teaching a real person whose initial contact had sounded like a scam. So I am always very polite, offer to arrange things in person by phone, and write that all new students pay me in cash over tea after their lesson (which is true, and the norm). This is just on the off-chance there is a genuine person behind the clunky email, who is keen to do T'ai Chi. All but that one time, I never heard back again. 

31 January 2017

A letter

I have been away from class tonight with a sore throat, swollen glands and a sore foot. Rather than spread a lurgy I have been at home sorting out a few books to recommend a Zen friend as he'd asked about our approach. I have just emailed him and was just about to send him the book list, but quite a few folks at class over the years have asked the same thing. So, here's most of the letter. If it's of help, great. If not, ignore it. Any mistakes are purely my own, and it does not necessarily reflect the views of my teachers...

Dear B,
   Regarding the intro to Cleary's Taoist I Ching, it's as good an intro to 'Complete Reality Taoism' as you'll find and has lots of insight from Liu I Ming, who seems to have been a real reformer and opener of Tao, somewhat like Dogen of Zen. There are scathing remarks for 'armchair Taoists'. Somehow he both keeps me on my cushion and on my toes.

Zen and our sitting practice are not different things. They feature slightly different terms and emphases. Nothing beats Buddhist terms like 'grasping' or 'aversion' for clarity and they translate so well in T'ai Chi. Taoist alchemical terms can seem unwieldy at first, but I have learned to appreciate them, especially those referring to 'the firing process', that huge change and undoing of the self which is precipitated by the path.

'Sitting forgetting' or '9 years facing the wall' is like in Zen, basic practice, and describes the same struggle to rest the mind on the breath and the breath on the mind. However, one must not then become a 'quietist' (which is a great old Taoist put-down for Ch'an Buddhists who only emptied their minds then left it at that). Instead: 'Kill the stirring mind, do not kill the Shining mind'. From what I understand, the goal, if I may dare use that word, is to live in the world and yet not be attached, decrease entanglements, to respond spontaneously and appropriately, to be natural and not full of cleverness.

In hard times, the Wayfarer is advised to stay on the edges, be a bit of a hermit, live simply in one's surroundings. In easier times it is possible to be part of general society, and to be incidentally of great benefit. Here for me is the real difference between the Dharma and the Tao. Both recommend pretty much the same practice, mental hygiene and view of mind, yet the Mahayana Boddhisattva vow sets it apart, from Tao (and Theravada), I feel. In much Buddhism, one vows to attain enlightenment and then to help all sentient beings do this, even by returning in another life to help them. With the Way, it is stressed that only by non-interference, nurturing of the natural and non-doing (wu-wei or 'uncontrived action') that the most beneficial outcome can be reached for all, human and non-human alike.

I was for so long drawn to the 'do good' side of Buddhism, but over years of noticing myself and others wreak chaos with our goodwill, I changed my mind. To a person of many faiths, even Humanism, our unwillingness to make big actions in the world, even when given the opportunity, may seem like nihilism, but it is far from it. Over 20 years of T'ai Chi partner work and relationship, it is only when I don't act from my will or my 'brilliant idea' that something really natural, fresh, or beneficial happens. Likewise, if I am not empty, not fully present or am unconnected in push hands, I get hit or caught or spun out. Discomfort and embarrassment have been two of my biggest teachers.

Awake, mind empty, body relaxed, connected to everything around, resting in the heart-mind (hsin), outreaching with my energy: this is rare and wonderful. It happens in T'ai Chi partner work, usually when I am under just the right amount of pressure. Sometimes too in nature, especially when making things with my hands out in the open, or hiking and then suddenly resting under a tree, say. Once or twice on my cushion (I live in hope!). A few times in the company of exceptional people or living beings. 

Modern writers such as Nassim Nicholas Taleb touch on responsiveness in 'Anti-Fragile' and John Gray and Yuval Noah Harari are similarly insightful in their work regarding the wider geo-political and historical spheres. The incomparable Ursula LeGuin has written alternative worlds in which the Way is occasionally the norm. In the Western lineage, the Stoics are a great source of wisdom, especially Marcus Aurelius. Greek Taoists! Rumi, The Cloud Of Unknowing, and other apophatic works also strengthen the resolve not to cling to things as they appear. Rather than the Buddhist term 'emptiness' (shunyata) I like Mark's take on it: 'no - thingness'.

Excepting in our T'ai Chi family, and on Zen retreats, most of all I have found fellow wayfarers since discovering Dark Mountain.

Well - one hour later and there - I have done exactly what Lao-tzu says don't do!
'The Way that can be told...'

Ah well. 
With respect, caro x

Sword and sabre next week in London

Tuesday 7th and Thursday 9th for Sword and Sabre study.

28 January 2017

All London workshops 2017

Here's the list of all workshops with Mark this year. I just had a great session teaching sword to old Hackney student Chris Laver, and I promised I'd get this on the blog today. You can always search for older posts and info by using the tags list or the search box, by the way...

Sunday 2-5pm workshops in Wandsworth, usual venue St Mary Magdalene Church Hall: £22

26th February: Sabre
2nd April: Sword (all who have finished Sabre are welcome to attend as new beginners)
11th June: Sabre (new Sabre beginners are welcome, you need to have finished Short Form)
9th July: Sword
24th September: Staff (all are welcome to begin Staff who have completed Short Form)

Summer workshop: 22-28th July (21st eve Stepping Partnerwork)
October workshop: 14-16 October in Scotland (13th eve Weapons)

27 January 2017

The Taoist I Ching - Thomas Cleary

I have a moment to blog about another of my favourite books. Actually I don't use the I Ching as an oracle or guide at all. I think I got about half way through the hexagrams text. The joy is the introduction to this book, where Cleary elucidates Complete Reality Taoism so succinctly, beautifully and deeply, that alone it is the best 'quick guide' to our approach to Taoism I could recommend. He quotes Liu I Ming, whose I Ching commentary is found in this book and generously explains many Taoist alchemical terms. As with every Cleary translation I have so far encountered, I highly recommend this book to anyone. 

26 January 2017

Psychoyogi gig

Here's another gig from Hackney Chris, who now studies in North London with Verne.

Something sweet, something ancient

Making mead at Gosnell's in London It will be ready in another week. Possibly the oldest alcoholic drink made by humans. certainly one of may favourites - for nights off class obviously.

Another beautiful fossil coral from The Burren.