Thursday, November 24, 2011
Sunday, November 20, 2011
Thursday, November 17, 2011
This may be hard to believe, but when I first moved to Seattle in 1984, Andrew T. Dale was one of just a handful of people teaching, and the only person teaching, T'ai-Chi during the daytime, at least that I could find and I looked around quite a bit.
All of us who found Andy during that period, when T'ai-Chi was not nearly as widespread as it is now, were dedicated enough to find him and that was not easy. There was no question that we would and did practice and really put energy into learning the art. We had a small but sincerely focused group. Andy didn't need to "lead us by the hand" although he certainly did at times. Mostly he pointed the way and said "work on this". He didn't crack the whip, but he didn't cater to anyone's laziness either.
Now, many years later, there are loads of people teaching T'ai-Chi, it's everywhere, and a large percentage of those people only practice in class and need a lot of "hand leading". On the negative side, most of these people will never learn the subtleties of the art or put its principles deeply to work. On the positive side most of them will get at least some T'ai-Chi and physical self-awareness in their lives and many will get real benefits that they wouldn't have gotten otherwise.
So the people who jump on these things early and are really dedicated will always sigh when they see the masses jump on the bandwagon late and have to be led around by the hand. I think as time goes by this cycle repeats itself again and again, as any art gains and loses favor. Whenever popular interest is low, only the dedicated practice it and the quality is high, whenever popular interest is high, the masses practice it and while the overall quality is not as high, it is "wider" and reaches more people. I've been though one relatively low and now am in the middle of a relatively high interest in T'ai-Chi. I roll with it because I love teaching people wherever they happen to be on the dedication scale, but I can see how someone who was more innovative and highly skilled would be more bummed about the state of affairs during times of popularity when people in general are more casual in their approach to the arts.
There are also booms and busts economically over time. During harder times people are tougher, during fat times people are softer. Again, if you grow up tough, you bemoan the softies. I think everyone's right here. The softies really are softer and weaker, less physically skilled people. And the toughies really are living in the past, complaining about something that can't be changed, and a bunch of grumpy old farts.
Sometimes it's hard to find the right teacher because hardly anyone is teaching what you want to learn. Sometimes it's hard to find the right teacher because too many people are teaching, or claiming to teach what you want to learn. But no matter how muddy or empty the water is, true students will find their teachers and learn their arts. Always have, always will. ;~)
Thursday, November 10, 2011
I just bought a vintage mahogany Harmony baritone ukulele on eBay for less than $100, including shipping. It looks to be the same model as the one in this picture but I can’t say for sure. I’m taking a chance of course, since I don't know what it sounds like. But the price was too good to pass up. I think one reason I got it so cheap is that the owner spelled it "ukelele" in the eBay listing and a lot of people who were searching for this kind of thing and spelled it correctly never saw it. I can't wait to get it and see what I can do with it.
What got me started was I was hanging out with some friends at the Occupy Chase protest in Ashland and a passing friend taught me how to play Jump You Fuckers on a concert uke and then we videoed it and put it up on youtube and it's got like 1600 views in a few weeks. It was fun, I liked the way it sounded and it was a nice introduction to the instrument. I'm not really much of a musician so I'm not planning on working any wonders on the uke beyond some nice grooves or moments. And I'm not interested in the ukulele "craze" really. I just liked the sound and portability of my first encounter with one and wanted to explore further.
I started putting the word out that I was interested in finding a decent ukulele and within a day or so two of my friends offered to lend me their vintage mahogany ukes, but I declined. I don’t like to borrow instruments I have no chance of buying. I don’t want to get attached to something I have to give back. But one friend did have a vintage Martin mahogany uke that she was willing to sell me, but it was a soprano which is very small, tiny really. I’m borrowing it right now, but I’ll probably pass on it.
I am still going to get a decent concert size uke (one step bigger than a soprano) and maybe a tenor as well. The baritone I just bought is the largest size, from what I understand. I think the usual tuning is just like the highest four strings on a guitar, but they can also be tuned like a tenor uke or like a tenor guitar, which is what I’m leaning toward. I’ll have to see what it sounds like first.
I’m looking forward to getting to know my way around the basic chords of whatever size uke I happen to be playing and then letting my ear lead me to the kind of sounds I feel like making. I have no clear idea what direction I want to go with this instrument, I’m just drawn to it and I’m going with it.
Sunday, November 6, 2011
As I see it, the key to having real and deep firmness in your being is to have real and deep softness as well; and the key to having real and deep softness in your being is to have real and deep firmness. One without the other isn't very real and isn't very deep.
Firmness and softness are inter-related in that one without the other tends to be superficial and not very substantial. For example bullies tend to be superficially tough, but not nearly as tough as people who also can be soft. And hippies tend to be superficially soft, but not nearly as soft as people who can also be firm.
It's another way of talking about Yin and Yang, which according to traditional Chinese thought, don't really exist in any healthy way without each other. The Tao Te Tching says: Know the Yang but keep to the Yin. That first part is what so many hippies and New Agers would rather avoid...
Another example: “Beating swords into plowshares” is powerful, because you know the sword but decide not to use it. Never knowing swords in the first place and then beating them into plowshares is weaker, because you are being "peaceful" but you have no choice.
This interrelatedness of opposites can be applied to many of the seeming contradictions in human nature.
I think trying to deny, banish, or "transcend" one half of the many splits in ourselves is a recipe for trouble. Firm/Soft, Civilized/Animal, Violent/Peaceful, Competitive/Cooperative, Loving/Lustful, Greedy/Generous, Self-Interested/Altruistic, One/Separate...these are all hard-wired and valuable aspects of human nature. For me, balance is the key to life, not purification. And the key to balance is to first accept these dual aspects of our nature.
But that won’t do away with being out of balance. I don't think we can banish being out of balance from our lives. Balance can't be clung to or it ceases to be. You have to accept imbalance in order to have balance, which is actually a verb not a noun. It is always in motion, always a vibration between lost and found and lost and found and lost and found.
And so, sometimes I have the key and sometimes I am keyless. Sometimes I feel balanced and sometimes I don’t. I do my best to accept that and try not to cling to either state. Sometimes a little purification is not a bad thing. The need to attempt purification is human too.
But what seems so wasteful, selfish, and pointless to me is people's life long strivings to overcome, eliminate, deny, or "transcend" things that are built into our natures as human beings. This seems futile to me and the cause of so much violence and suffering in the world, turning people against their own bodies and selves, fueling murderous insecurity, and countless "holy" wars.
As I see it, true balance means true acceptance of who we are and living in the dynamic tension between our opposite qualities. I see this as an endless work in progress. I may never reach any kind of permanent state of balance but orienting in that direction seems like the best route to peace, joy, kindness, and the life I'm interested in living. Hard and soft, not hard or soft.
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
"Peace Of Mind" Becomes "My Unforced Life"
My Friend and T’ai-Chi student John Soares has a great blog called “ProductiveWriters.com” where he recently posted an article called “Should You Edit As You Write?” In the piece he discussed the pros and cons of editing as you go, versus editing later and many other writers commented sharing how they handle this issue.
My comment was:
“For me it depends on what kind of writing I’m doing. If I’m feeling inspired and on a roll, I don’t even bother with paragraph breaks, misspellings or even quotation marks. I just shoot from the hip until the wave has passed. If I’m working something out and developing an idea or line of thought, I’ll be more thoughtful and edit some as I go. But generally, I write first from a creative, free-spirited, uncensored place and then go over it afterwards to clean it up.
This is true of everything I write, whether it be songs, blog posts, emails or website comments. I often go through several drafts before I consider it “done”.
For instance, I might want to turn several facebook posts on a given subject into a blog post. I will have saved these posts in a folder in my computer. One night I’ll open them all up and put them in a rough working order in a Word document. Later I’ll go over it and clean up redundancies, people’s names I might have mentioned and language more suited to facebook than my blog. I might still go over the entire piece once or twice more, looking to see how it works and flows as a whole before I decide it’s ready to post.
Other times, I’ll get an idea, do a quick rough draft, go over it once or twice to smooth it out and then go ahead and post it. So the process can take weeks or it can take minutes. But then I’m not a professional. I can see that if I was, I’d have to decide not only which style pleased me most, but which style got the job done best with the amount of energy I could give it.”
Recently, I submitted an article to our local paper for a column about all aspects of “Inner Peace”. I also posted it here with the title “Peace Of Mind”. I got an email back from the editor of this column saying my submission was 750 words long and if I could edit it down to 700 words or less she would publish it.
So I set about “editing” it but I ended up doing a pretty substantial re-write that took about 4 hours! I guess it was just one of those cases where I wanted to get it as close to exactly right as I could get it. I just kept going over it and over it until nothing bugged me. That 700 word limit was exasperating at times but ultimately I think the re-write is better. Here it is with a new title:
My Unforced Life
Peace of mind does not exist in my world. In my experience, minds are not peaceful. I have experienced that it's possible to become more peaceful of mind, I am relatively sure of that. But I've never experienced, nor have I felt that anyone else was experiencing pure peace of mind.
Only two things have actually brought some measure of peace to my life. One has been accepting that parts of me are not peaceful, never have been, and probably never will be. The other has been doing what feels most deeply right to me.
By admitting to myself that in addition to their opposites, I am also competitive, aggressive, lustful, angry, scared, selfish, greedy, violent, and warlike, I invite these parts of myself to be full-fledged members of my internal family or parliament. They don't have to become outlaws and demons to be fought with. When I accept and allow them to have some expression, these so-called “darker” parts of myself begin to relax. I don't fight them, I just temper them. They don't fight me, they just make themselves known. Rather than fighting to be “good”, I focus on unforced balance and accepting myself as I am. And less fighting in my mind means more peace in my mind.
I find this to be true again and again. I have more peace in my mind when I accept the war in my mind. Certainly more than I do when I try to be peaceful. Trying to be peaceful seems like a contradiction in terms to me, like being determined to relax, or trying to lift a chair I’m sitting in.
I call myself a “freestyle” Taoist because rather than the 1200+ volumes that comprise the orthodox Taoist canon, I focus instead on 4 words: Flow more—Force less. This is the heart of my life, both as T'ai-Chi teacher and singer/songwriter. I've spent over 25 years studying how to "flow more—force less" in countless training exercises within the T'ai-Chi system. I've spent even longer working on reducing excess effort as a singer, writer, and performer. And yet I still force things all the time.
What’s important to me in life is not so much what I hit as what I aim for. My target is what I call "the unforced life”, the life that I don't have to force myself to live, where each action is done with just the right amount of energy needed to achieve its ends. I've studied this on a daily basis for decades and still, what progress I've made has been slow, with many small steps.
Living in the dynamic tension between my various opposites has not been easy, but I vastly prefer it to trying to banish or eliminate parts of myself that seem hard-wired into me by Nature. When I accept myself as I am, my shoulders relax and sink, martial techniques become more effective, my hands find the right sound on my guitar, my voice opens a bit, I find the words I’m looking for, I connect better with my friends, I breathe easier, and once again, a small measure of peace emerges.
My unforced life comes gradually, by accepting whatever is happening inside of me. Not liking it necessarily, but accepting it, accepting that it's happening. Things are always changing and conflict seems inevitable, but when I accept what's going on in me, I’m less conflicted.
With less preoccupying conflict in my life, it’s easier to identify what feels most deeply right to me and easier to act on it. I've learned to trust this "most deeply right" feeling completely. I trust that it will lead me, directly or indirectly, to the right life, the unforced life that includes both the “light” and “dark” aspects of my nature. As I get better at identifying and acting on this inner "right" feeling, my lessons are not as painful, I flow more and force less, I have more satisfying and enjoyable experiences of myself and the world around me, and yes, even a bit more peace of mind.
Gene Burnett is a T’ai-Chi teacher and singer/songwriter living and working in Ashland. www.GeneBurnett.com
Tuesday, November 1, 2011
I Put Nothing Beyond It
I don't want to resolve doubt. I like doubt. It keeps my mind open. I even like doubting things I don't actually doubt. What I don't want is paralyzing doubt. Doubt is like a spice to me. You don't want to make a meal of it, but a meal without it is kind of dull...
But unreasonable doubt is, well, unreasonable. When it comes to whether or not I am writing in English right now, I would say that I have no doubt that English is being written. None at all really, which, while it makes me suspicious, doesn't change my mind.
What I would doubt a little, and really just a little, is that the "I" in "I am writing in English." is who's really doing the writing. Or whether that "I" is real or not. Or whether "you" the reader are real or not. Or whether the physical reality in which I write and you read is real. About all of these things I have some doubt. Not enough to change my behavior significantly, but enough to keep me alert to the possibility that things might not be what they seem.
Since there's an "I" in anything I perceive, I have to include some doubt about that "I" in almost everything. Just some though. I exaggerate that doubt a bit to make a point.
I feel like the essential "me" is naked and at best a bit uncomfortable with that, so part of me is always putting on the "clothes" of certainty to make me feel better, but another part of me would rather just get used to being naked and is constantly undressing. One part keeps solving the mystery and the other part keeps reviving it. In between is where the action is for me, living in the tension stripping and dressing.
If pressed to be absolutely as accurate as possible I would say I'm not certain of anything, not even that last statement. But in everyday life, I accept the necessary compromise and say, Yes, I'm sure, when what I really mean is that I'm virtually sure. And virtually means almost but not.
I have to say things that aren't strictly true, but are virtually true. Keeping this in mind keeps me from being too certain. It keeps doubt alive. And I like doubt. Doubt to me is a wonderful thing that keeps life from getting stale and keeps me from mistaking words for the things they describe.
I think there’s always something "wrong" with any statement. Not in the logical sense, but in the sense that there is always room for doubt or an alternative point of view. Every truth starts with some assumptions. Examine those and you will find room for "error" or inaccuracy. As I say in my song “You Are Wrong”, even "1 + 1 = 2" assumes that there is such thing as "one" or "two" of anything, that separate things exist, that boundaries exist, that adding things together exists, and that two things can be "equal". You may very well make all these assumptions, I do all the time in everyday life, but you don't have to. You could also assume that "1 + 1 =2" is an error ridden convenience that makes lots of things work better.