Friday, March 29, 2013

First Perfection

Then Beyond...

I just finished watching a really fascinating and wonderful documentary about the making of Steely Dan's 1977 album Aja. If you are a Steely Dan fan, or just a fan of that album, a fan of music, or a person who has an interest in how a great recording is put together, I highly recommend this movie. It's called "Classic Albums: Steely Dan: Aja" and it's available for streaming on Netflix. 

Steely Dan has been my favorite band for many years now. I like many different kinds of music but this is the only band whose music I can always listen to and enjoy, almost any time, over and over. I never get tired of any of their songs. So I loved watching Donald Fagen and Walter Becker sitting at an engineering console and isolating different tracks from Aja, both rejected and album versions, and talking about how they put the music together. I also really enjoyed hearing other musicians who worked on the album talking about how they came up with their famous parts and what the whole process was like. All of this is interspersed with band history, archival photos, and shots of the band playing "live". All very cool. I'm amazed I waited this long to see it. 

But beyond the pleasure of watching how one of my favorite albums of all time was put together, there was a very nice moment in the middle of the movie that resonated with me and I think is relevant to many areas of life, including things like Yoga and T'ai-Chi. One of the musicians was talking about Fagen and Becker and he said that they weren't just looking for perfection. They wanted more than perfection. He said it was a two stage process. First they went for perfection. Then, when they had that, they went beyond perfection to where it felt natural, almost improvisational. 

When I heard this I immediately thought of martial arts and other movement arts and why certain practitioners rub me the wrong way and others don't. It seems the ones I like best and most aspire to be like are the ones who've gone beyond perfectionism, beyond technique, to naturalness. The ones I'm not crazy about seem to be stuck in the perfectionism stage, they think it's the goal rather than a stepping stone to a deeper understanding. 

In the arts I'm most focused on: T'ai-Chi, performing music, and songwriting, I feel a two stage process in my work as well. First I get things as close to perfect as I can get them. Then I do my best to go past that to where it feels natural, but intentional. I know that sounds like a contradiction in terms but that's what I'm after. I think part of my affinity with the Steely Dan sound is that it strikes me as intentionally natural. In very different arts and in very different ways, I feel we are aiming for the same thing. 

Monday, March 18, 2013


I Don't Want To Push It...

I've never had very sturdy tendons or ligaments so I'm somewhat prone to tendinitis and sprains. As I get older injuries take longer and longer to heal, and whenever I'm working, or working out, I want to be careful not to overdo whatever it is I'm doing. In fact one of my little motto's is: "I don't want an injury to tell me what I'm too old to do." I gently rein in my extremes every year.

I'm in the process right now of working on push-ups, to see how many and of which kind I can do without hurting myself. I like the feeling of strength and stability that doing push-ups adds to the way my body feels but I don't want to and can't afford to injure myself. I used to do push-ups regularly but after a nagging elbow injury a couple of years ago I got out of the habit completely. I really don't want a repeat of that so I'm being pretty careful as I return to doing them. 

I like to do two kinds of push-ups, one is the usual kind with arms out to the sides a bit that emphasizes the pecs, and other is with the elbows in very close to the ribs that emphasizes shoulder stabilizers like the lats. I like to do them with good posture and alignment, smoothly, no jerking, and I like to do complete ones not partial. I also like to do them in Systema style sets with 25% of any set exhaling on the upward movement, 25% exhaling on the downward movement, 25% with lungs full-no breathing, 25% with lungs empty-no breathing. I'd love to be able to do these pushups on my fists but I've not had good results doing that, including the elbow injury that took many months to heal. I do them all on my palms. 

If I could do one set of 40, 10 of each breathing method, non-stop, take a short break, and then do another set of 40, same breathing, non-stop, but of the other kind of pushup, and do that more or less every day without strain, I would be very happy with that. (I'm 55.) Right now it seems possible but by no means certain. I'm definitely not there yet. Every time my elbows or wrists start to hurt, I have to back off a bit, sometimes a lot. I just can't afford to have injured upper body joints, especially if the injuries become chronic. I always do as many as I feel I can safely do, but how many that is changes and I don't push it. 

In some ways this tendon/ligament sensitivity is a drag and pisses me off, not to mention, just hurts...but in other ways, I'm grateful for it because it's been a kind of forced bio-feedback mechanism that's helped me move more efficiently and spread work and stress more evenly in my body. Whenever I haven't "listened to the pain" and made the necessary corrections, I've paid for it. Going slowly and carefully has always yielded the best results for me, so that's what I'm doing with the pushups. 

(I've also begun to do this a bit with pull-ups but that is much more challenging to my soft tissues. I'm mostly just working on hanging from a pull-up bar while lifting up enough to free my head and neck, doing short mini-pulls from there and occasionally going for a single, slow, smooth and complete pull-up. I'd love to build up to doing 10 slow smooth ones, but I would settle for 5 at this point. I really have to be careful with these so I'm not forcing it at all.)

Monday, March 11, 2013


What is it?

The word “intent” gets thrown around a lot in Martial Arts circles and in daily life. I don't know if anyone knows the true nature of intent. I sure don't, but here are some of my thoughts on the subject. 

I believe the Chinese translation for "intent" is something like "idea mind". I see intent as a kind of idea flow, or sequence that starts with an impulse and runs to a conclusion. For example, if someone or something does something that really pisses me off, like facebook did one night when it deleted a long comment on this every subject that took 20 minutes for me to write. When that happens it might stir up a sudden almost murderous intent that flows from the moment of insult right up to the point where I burst into Zuckerberg's office with a chainsaw. Or maybe during pushing hands practice an opening appears and I have the impulse to exploit that opening and move in on my partner with a push. Or I might be practicing a T’ai-Chi form and the impulse arises to practice it with a certain theme in mind, like with a special emphasis on softness, or waist movement, or martial application.

When a mind idea like one of these happens, I have to decide whether or not to make it happen. And by “make it happen”, I mean connect that intent through my entire nervous system to my muscles and bones so they can, in some way, express that intent in the more overtly physical world. In the former case, of course, I will wisely let that mind idea play out in my head, but not in the outer world. In the latter cases, if I can process the moment fast enough I will probably give that idea some energy and go in for the push, or if one of those practice themes appeals to me, go ahead and practice that way.

T’ai-Chi is all about balance and the key to balance for me is to build the connection between my intent, or the ideas in my mind, and my muscles and bones. I want that connection as deep and effortless as I can get it, because in life things can happen very fast and the more fluid and solid that connection is, the more likely my muscles and bones can give my intent an accurate and timely expression. What connects my mind ideas to my muscles and bones is essentially what we in the West call the nervous system.

Balance is all about making corrections, and making corrections is all about receptivity and execution, or yin and yang. Nature seems to make its corrections unconsciously and effortlessly. But I am a human being and for better or worse, if I seek balance, I will have to make many of my own corrections, and make them consciously.

Lay a 2 X 4 between two buildings 10 stories high. A cat will just walk right over that thing with barely a thought because Nature is handling the corrections. Now if you or I have to walk that plank we will be making many of those corrections ourselves and so we will be making choices and processing information and almost certainly going across more slowly and with more trepidation.

And here is where that intent to muscles and bones connection is important. I can’t think of a better tool to help me make the corrections I need to make as I walk the various planks in my life, than a clear and clean connection between my intent, or mind ideas, and my bones and muscles. I think this connection is the key to whole-hearted and successful action. I’m not saying I have this clear and clean connection, but that is what I steer towards in life.   

For me, building this connection has to be done slowly. And I’m sure for a lot of other people as well, otherwise T’ai-Chi training as we know it would not exist. By going slowly I have time to study the connection between my intent and my muscles and bones, gradually making that connection smoother and more effortless, with more and more of a “dimmer switch” feeling rather and less and less of an “on-off” feeling. That way when things speed up, the chances will be better that I will make the necessary adjustments. It’s like carefully cleaning a racetrack before a race so I can run on it smoothly without thinking about debris.

In my own practice and teaching, I start with posture, alignment and structure, which is what I call “Bone Level Work”. Then I move to relaxation, smoothness and appropriate use of muscular force, which I call “Muscle Level Work”. Then I move into suspending the joints, connecting with the breath, feeling the inner body connections and unifying the body in action, which I call “Energy Level Work” or “Nervous System Work”. So we say in T’ai-Chi that intent leads energy and energy leads the muscles and bones.

What I really love is that when I feel this solid connection between my intent and my bones and muscles, I’m in a better position to surrender into what I might call the Tao, or what some might call Life’s intent, or God’s intent. This is when yes, there is intent directing my muscles and bones into some action or other, but there is no sense of it being my personal intent or even my muscles and bones. I am not really “there” in the usual sense. It can happen in a martial training game, while singing, on a walk in the woods, in a ping-pong game, on a bike, anywhere really and anytime. These are the moments when I am one with what I am doing. 

But this is tricky and much easier said than done. I have to “not be there” in these moments, and yet I can’t “not be there” with any force whatsoever because force always implies a forcer who is of course, “there”. 

So rather than try to bring these "not there" Spirit Level moments into being, I just practice and refine the other 3 levels as best I can and enjoy the benefits of having my bones and muscles more and more at the command of my intent. One of these benefits is that when one of these "not there" Spirit Level moments happens, I'm in a better position to go with it and whatever work I've done to connect my intent to my muscles and bones will result in Life's intent manifesting more accurately through me.