Martial Arts and Feng Shui

mafs3Traditional kung fu schools are not known for being pretty. Most martial artists can report a long history of working out night after night in basements, garages, parking lots, and warehouses. I taught my first Tai Chi class 30 years ago in a high school cafeteria. My current Tai Chi sword class meets on the basketball court at the park, which we often share with local kids shooting hoops. None of these places would make it into the coffee table books that highlight model feng shui homes—you know the ones, with their cascading water features, peaceful gardens, meandering paths, and elegant front doors. Continue reading

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What you should know before you start a Tai Chi class

tc3I love teaching Tai Chi, and I especially love introducing this beautiful health promoting martial art to beginners. But many people start out with some ideas that are not only wrong, but prevent them from sticking with the practice long enough to benefit from it. This is not their fault. Unfortunately, bad teaching and popular but misleading ideas abound.

So here’s my attempt to set a few things straight and get people started off on the right foot (sorry for the pun.)

1. Tai Chi is a martial art. Yes I know, that sounds obvious. But many people come to Tai Chi thinking it can be stripped of its original function and turned into a relaxation/recreation exercise routine. The truth is if you’re not willing to work at Tai Chi like the kung fu practice it is, you not only won’t reap its benefits, but you’ll be frustrated and disappointed. It’s not that you’re required to develop it as a self defense practice. This just isn’t realistic in the age of guns. But you are expected to cultivate martial spirit, along with martial form and martial shapes. This is the correct (and I think the only,) pathway to Tai Chi’s famous health benefits.

2. Tai Chi is difficult. Many people have been sold a fantasy version of Tai Chi based on the idea that it’s just “swimming in air,” or some sort of Chinese version of freestyle dancing that will relieve their stress. These people always leave the first class in a state of shock. The basics of  legwork, alignment, and posture are very difficult, especially for adults whose bodies have been shaped by a lifetime of contrived movement like sitting at computers and driving cars. The first task is to unlearn these movement habits. It can take years. And many people find the basic Tai Chi short set a challenge to memorize. I tell them over and over that Tai Chi is not about learning sets but about learning a new way to move. I’ve been doing Tai Chi for over 35 years. I still practice basics, not sets. It’s hard for new students to hear this. They beat themselves up relentlessly for not easily learning the set. So yes, you’ll learn the set; it’s just going to take a little longer than you probably thought.

3. Tai Chi is a comprehensive practice that will touch every aspect of your life, if you let it. This is not something you do for one hour a week in class. You’ll get no benefit at all if you’re not willing to change, and let Tai Chi change the way you live. You have to learn to think, drive, sit, walk, and stand in line at the bank, like a Tai Chi player. Tai Chi teaches you a level of sensitivity, awareness, and alignment with your center that makes your whole life different. But you have to be open to this, and not treat Tai Chi like recreation—something you do apart from your regular life.

4. You have to practice every day. Again, this might seem obvious. But if you think about your Tai Chi class the same way you think about your Jazzercise class (somebody leads you through a routine once a week,) you’ll miss the whole Tai Chi experience, and you’ll be one of those frustrated people who complains that they can’t memorize the form. Tai Chi takes daily practice. It doesn’t have to be for long sessions—in fact at first, short 10 minute sessions are better. Just go over what you learn each week. But do it regularly. Keep it fun and don’t worry about making mistakes—you’ll get corrected next time. One thing I can promise you though, is that if you don’t practice, you’ll never learn Tai Chi. The whole point is to be able to do this for yourself, at home, for the rest of your life. So don’t wait until you think you’ve got a better handle on things. Begin here, now.

I don’t mean to play the heavy and dissuade you from trying a Tai Chi class. On the contrary, I want everyone to learn Tai Chi and I’m relentlessly optimistic about everyone being capable of learning and doing Tai Chi. But I’m also a tireless promoter of the real thing. Authentic Tai Chi is Kung Fu, and Kung Fu is for the whole village. Just bring your openness, patience, and martial spirit to the floor.

See you in class!

 

 

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Tips on how to memorize a form

Many of my beginning Tai Chi students complain that they find it difficult to memorize the form. Here are some tips from my own teacher, Sifu Ted Mancuso, who has over 40 years of Kung Fu experience and still accurately recalls hundreds of forms.

Guest post by Sifu Ted Mancuso

Forms are pre-arranged sequences of martial movements. The trouble is that you may not have any experience memorizing sequenced actions. Here are a few tips for making this a pleasant learning experience.

1. Always face the same direction when you start the form.

2. Concentrate on the physical, let all the other stuff come later.

3. Your first question, every time, should be about your feet. What stance am I in? Most beginners are obsessed with the hand motions; but they don’t mean a thing without proper stance. In old China the teacher might teach six months before allowing his student to remove his hands from his hips. First is foundation, then build!

4. Most beginning forms are about twenty five movements long, or about two minutes of execution. Select small groups with three to five actions. Practice them then add another section.

5. As you review, go back to the beginning each time to reinforce it. As you practice, the first section will become more natural and that alone will give you confidence to continue.

6. Stay in each posture for a set time, like one complete inhalation and exhalation. Don’t go faster and faster, go slower and slower.

7. Tell yourself a story. “I hit him in the nose, sat back, then kicked to the knee.” If the height and direction are about right the story is fine. If you figure out a meaning for that move in the form and it helps you memorize, more power to you.

8.  Imagine an opponent. He doesn’t have to be doing anything to you but it gives a direction, “He’s over by the corner.” Of course his position will change but as long as you know where he is you have won half the battle.

9. Don’t be afraid to ask about a movement again and again. But your half of the bargain is to pay attention to what the teacher says and let your anxieties go away for a while. Don’t be afraid to “practice wrong.” Your teacher is only a lesson away, you won’t ruin your Kung Fu in the meantime.

You do have to memorize the forms. Otherwise it would be like studying a foreign language without remembering any words. But, with a little perseverance, the process becomes easy and fun—as it is for most people. We’re here to help you in that.

Just try, a strong heart always wins out.

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Your Front Door–Mouth of the Qi

The front door of your home can have a powerful influence on your well being and happiness. In Feng Shui we give this feature of a house its own special category. Called the “Ming Tang,” or bright hall, your front door and entrance form the mouth of qi for your home, mediating that crucial threshold between the outside world and your private world. Your cumulative experience of coming and going over time can have powerful psychological and emotional effects on you, so it’s important to give careful attention to your home’s Ming Tang.

These days many people come and go solely through their garage, relegating the actual front door to a mere decoration. Whether this is a serious problem or not depends on the compass analysis of your house. In some cases, when it’s important to activate the front door sector, I suggest that the occupants park in the garage and walk around to use the front door. In other cases, the garage entry might actually be a better choice. But in all cases, it’s important to make the place of entry one of ease and welcome.

So what makes a good Ming Tang? Over the years I’ve developed a check list for the minimum requirements, along with a vision for the ideal. I’ll give you both, and like most of us, your own Ming Tang will probably fall somewhere in between these. At a minimum, your entryway should be clean, uncluttered, and in good repair.  A freshly painted door is a plus. There’s no requirement for the door to be red, as some feng shui enthusiasts think. The color is really a matter of harmonizing with the environment and the character of the house, along with personal taste. (Sometimes, a compass analysis of the house will uncover an elemental imbalance in the front door sector; in this case, painting the door a particular color can help correct this.)

If you’ve achieved this minimum and want to enhance your Ming Tang even more, here’s the ideal vision. First, we would all love a front porch. The porch should be large enough to accommodate several guests, or even just yourself laden with packages, family dog in tow. And it’s even better if this spacious front porch is covered and protected to shield you from the elements and soften your transition from outside to inside. Your porch should have a waist high shelf conveniently situated near the door so you can set down your groceries while fishing for the keys.

Now, upon successfully transitioning inside (and hopefully this was such a pleasant experience that you’re already feeling pretty cheerful about coming home,) you’re standing in a very pleasant foyer or front hallway. This is a place where you can complete your transition home by dropping keys and packages on the conveniently located hall table, hanging up your coat on the hook that is within easy reach, and sighing happily when you glance, for perhaps the hundredth time, at your favorite photograph or painting that hangs right there where you can see it as you arrive home every day.

And lastly, how nice that your little entryway is separated from the living room by a screen or large potted plant so you have a chance to settle yourself before bursting in on the rest of the family gathered there.

Now, you might think you need a mansion in a very swanky part of town to have such a Ming Tang, and you might feel that since you live in a studio apartment over someone’s garage that this Ming Tang stuff isn’t for you. You’d be wrong. You of all people need to pay special attention to your Ming Tang. Start by going back to the minimum requirements as stated above. Then, here are some simple things anyone can do, no matter how humble your abode, to create the feeling of a gracious (and spacious,) Ming Tang.

Start by getting the most beautiful front door mat you can afford, and keep it clean and swept at all times. This gives you a natural stopping point on your way inside. Then, even if you have no porch or overhang, place a sturdy outdoor bench, stool, or set of shelves next to your door on one side. On the other side place a robust plant (nothing with spiky leaves please,) in a sturdy attractive pot that will act as a sort of “sentinel” and give you a feeling of shelter and protection while you stand and fish for your keys. Now you’ve created a “place,” an alcove or nook with a sense of dimension where before there was only a door in a flat wall.

Next, on the inside, place a nice round rug, a waist high table to drop your keys and set down your packages, and something beautiful to look at to one side as you come in–perhaps a favorite painting or your grandmother’s antique mirror. Now you’ve created the spacious feeling of an entry hall. It might also be possible, even in a very tiny space, to place a shoji screen or indoor plant in such a way as to create the illusion of a separate entrance hall, providing just a little sense of separation and privacy between your front door and the rest of the room.

As I write this, I am sitting in a coffee shop at a small table near the front door. Though this is a very busy and public space, someone thought to put a nice screen of indoor plants–graceful palms and ficus–between the front door and the tables. So in spite of being so close to the door, I feel quite peaceful and undisturbed here at my little table. A great example of a cheap and simple way to work with the Ming Tang.

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Some Thoughts on Sword Training

Eight_Immortals_Crossing_the_Sea_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_15250A strange and beautiful image arises as I sit in meditation.
I see a shining steel blade glistening in the sun, beads of water dancing along its edge. The steel becomes a blade of grass, then a bamboo leaf. The drops of water still shine like crystals in the sun.

I am about to go teach a beginning sword class to my acupuncture students at the local college of Traditional Chinese Medicine. It took a while, and some persistence, to get this class into a curriculum already dense with required courses. The question often arises why a class in “Tai Chi Sword” would be relevant. The obvious answer is that working with a long straight metal blade is pretty good training for an acupuncturist who must develop skill at smoothly and painlessly inserting long thin metal needles into flesh. You need a sure hand and clear intention.

I’ve heard the saying, but can’t trace the source, that you should never trust an acupuncturist who doesn’t have a sword on their wall. I take this to mean that the acupuncturist’s art, just like the art of the straight sword, takes years of diligent practice before mastery can even be considered possible. Neither skill is merely technical; each requires a concurrent cultivation of wisdom and heart. In other words, they both require a dedication to Kung Fu.

The Chinese medical classics say that “Every needling must be rooted in the Spirit.” We can memorize points and their functions, practice our needle technique endlessly, and pass our exams with flying colors. But how, exactly, do we “root every needling in the Spirit?” How can we train for that? I may be wrong, but my guess is that to most students this is a quaint but abstract concept. Some sort of ancient Chinese mystical thinking.

But I think this “rooting in the Spirit” can be trained, and that the straight sword is the ideal method. Working with the straight sword trains your spirit (mind) to unite with your actions. The tip of the sword should express your heart’s intention. This skill begins, not with visualizing it like Luke Skywalker, but with training your body to be a well coordinated container for the expression of intent. This physical aspect of the training is too often missing, unfortunately, in other energetic work like qigong, which sometimes emphasizes (erroneously in my opinion,) visualization over physical structure. But with a straight sword, you just can’t get away with skipping this essential part of the work. If you don’t get your body properly set up to work with the sword, it will reveal your failings pretty dramatically. It is only after sufficient postural and movement training that your sword can begin to line up with your mind and intentions, taking on that lightness, ease, and fluidity that so epitomizes this weapon. It can take years.

So we practice. Like a musician playing scales, the martial artist drills basics and the doctor reviews points, herbs, and needle technique—always and forever. This is the Kung Fu of medicine, a call to practice for life. It begins here in the training hall, and there is no better martial arts weapon for an acupuncturist than the straight sword.

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Why I Practice Tai Chi

It is 6:30 a.m. and I’d rather stay in bed. I struggle up. I’m a little stiff and can’t yet imagine any activity except tea and staring out the window for a while. I grant myself the pleasure of one steaming cup of a dark oolong. Now comes the crucial moment. It would be so easy to settle in. There’s the lure of the New York Times, a quick peek at email and Facebook, my journal, and well, just the time to curl up for a while with my own thoughts. And it’s chilly and overcast outside. But I get up and go out to my morning practice.

nc_tccolor1I start the slow warmups, body still feeling creaky and lethargic. Hip circles, arms swings, weight shifts. Then the dance begins, at first tentatively, working my way into the long Tai Chi set that I’ve practiced for almost 40 years now. I know not to expect too much of this first 5-10 minutes. One doesn’t just automatically return to the ease and naturalness of the creek that flows around my house, or the great redwood trees that stand sentinel. Unlike we humans, they never depart from naturalness, while we live most of our lives in frozen awkward postures and contrived movement. We sit in front of computers; we spend endless hours behind the wheel of a car; we exercise in forced repetitive ways. To return to a natural, life enhancing way of moving has become, for us, a skill that must be cultivated and practiced.

Now, about half way through my practice time, I notice with quiet satisfaction that my movement has become fluid again. Joints and muscles that I thought were getting rusty are now springy and resilient. The morning air which at first felt damp and dreary, now feels like a rejuvenating mist on my skin. I finish the set and go to work on a section or two that I want to refine, looping the movements together over and over to carve this energetic pathway into my nervous system and muscles. I finish up and stand quietly for a minute or two, appreciating the moment, appreciating the gift of being able to do this simple elegant thing every day. I don’t know for sure if it will add to my years and improve my health, things that regular Tai Chi practice is purported to do. I suspect this is true, and am indeed at least partially motivated by the hope of a more graceful journey into old age.

But there’s more, something less tangible than a list of “benefits.” I think this more elusive thing has to do with honoring a pathway, something each of us is invited to do in life in a unique and personal way. When we find the pathway that clicks, the one that allows for an authentic expression of our natural self, the “self” that is most unaffected by artifice and ambition, then we must commit to it, like committing to a relationship for life. In Chinese philosophy and medicine we call this virtue. Cultivating it is a path to true happiness, which is the same as the path back to your natural self.

When the great cellist Pablo Casals was asked why he continued to practice at the age of 90, he replied, “because I think I’m getting better.” This is true Kung Fu. There is no finish line in Tai Chi, no point where you can check this skill off your bucket list. There’s only the daily trip out to your practice area. And you’re usually alone; there’s no one there appreciating your talent or cheering you on. It can get a little boring. Like playing scales I imagine. But then at 90 or so, you might be able to say, “I think I’m getting better.”

Narrye Caldwell is a Licensed Acupuncturist, martial artist, and feng shui consultant. She teaches and practices Yang style Tai Chi Chuan, Qigong, and Bagua Zhang, and is on the faculty at Five Branches University.

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Year of the Wood Horse–2014

tang-horseI thought I could stay safely hidden with the covers over my head, my preferred position during the 2013 Snake year. But the forward impulse of the Yang Wood Horse has finally coaxed me from my den. So, even though I’m late out of the starting gate, the first order of business is to offer my two cents about what this year will be like. (I was reminded today of the late great Seabiscuit who was also often late out of the gate, and you all know his reputation for famous finishes.)

Let’s talk about the Wood part first. If you’re not familiar with Chinese Astrology, it helps to know that there are five variations of each “animal” following the Five Element cycle of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. Wood has the qualities of youth, creativity, growth, exuberance, freshness, ambition, and drive. We all might find this intoxicating, coming as it does after two water years which swept us into dissolution, chaos, and transformation. Now, if you played your cards right during the run up to this year, using the time to reflect, plan, deepen into your true self and let go of whatever was ready to be released, while at the same time harboring the seeds of your new dream, then you’re perfectly aligned to let this new Wood Horse energy fill your luffing sails. On the other hand, if you over exerted yourself and fought stubbornly against the quagmire of Water energy, especially notable in the past Snake year, you might feel exhausted right now and have trouble stumbling out of the gate.

Either way, it’s important now to handle this tender wobbly Wood qi properly in order to align yourself with its potential. Horse energy is adventurous, physical, open-hearted, extroverted, passionate, social, joyous, productive, and spirited. So what we have when we hitch this energetic profile to the Wood element is a lot of power, enthusiasm and vigor, combined with immaturity. This is unformed potential–yang energy that requires training. Allowing this Horse to bolt out of the stall, without instruction and a gentling hand, is asking for trouble. Think injuries and accidents. Best approach is to let the qi mature for a few months. Exercise some personal discipline by holding off and restraining your ambition until later in the Spring.
With that gentle warning in mind, as long as you employ some discipline and training, this will be a great year to take action on all of the plans you made during the Snake year. Here’s how this might translate for each of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac:

Rat: You and Horse have completely opposite views of life. Your qi is dedicated to careful planning and analysis. Horse operates totally on physical instinct, passion, and courage. You think this is foolish, but nobody will listen to you this year. You also find the Horse’s obsession with sports and physical prowess a waste of time. So, rather than let yourself get out of sorts, the preferred strategy is to enjoy some time sitting on the sidelines. Let everybody else gallop ahead while you wait it out, hoard your money, and practice patience as an art form. A Tiger friend can mediate the Horse energy for you and keep you safe.

Ox: Just because you’re big and strong doesn’t mean you understand the Horse’s physical prowess. The Horse is dedicated to brilliant displays of power and speed. You, on the other hand, are committed to hard work and endurance. Horse flexes its muscles for joy. You work for family and stability. So you may be annoyed this year by the intensity and erratic quality of the qi. Try to keep a steady pace and avoid getting irritated by what looks like grandstanding to you.

Tiger: Finally, after two difficult years, you get to move ahead with a compatible team mate. Hopefully you stayed in your den last year, using the time for personal reflection and planning. Now you can announce your new flagship enterprise and gather support. Horse appreciates your honorability (unlike Snake who finds it naive,) and your values based ambition will be rewarded this year.

Rabbit: You and Horse are both intuitive but in very different ways. Horse intuition is physical instinct. Yours is psychic. It’s easy to miscommunicate. Also, horse is physically robust and you’re not. You’re better off staying out of the way of those flying hooves. Perhaps a quiet spiritual retreat this year?

Dragon: Don’t confuse the Horse’s terrestrial display of power for an opportunity to take over and make a grand display. Your power is supernatural, not physical. You’ll do fine this year, but consider sharing the stage, being generous in your praise of others, and deepening your friendships.

Snake: Two years ago you were the emperor’s advisor. Last year your quiet authority, philosophical view, and dedication to spiritual practice won the respect of all. This year your introverted approach won’t be recognized or appreciated but you’re not looking for that anyway. Just continue to work your magic through withdrawal and conservation.

Horse: You’re front and center this year, which would seem at first a good thing, but be careful of your natural tendency to act on impulse. Horses are so capable of running on heart alone, they sometimes forget to notice if they need rest and end up hurting themselves. You’ll love the freedom offered this year, and traveling is auspicious. Just make sure you check the ground for gopher holes.

Sheep: This should be a wonderful year for you. Your team spirit and sense of fair play are key qualities that help everyone else harmonize with the fast moving Horse energy. And your calm problem solving ability keeps everything running smoothly. People turn to you for advice. They recognize you as a gentling hand around the exuberant and fast running horse. Enjoy.

Monkey: Well, there’s a number of ways you can play this. But of course that’s always true for you right? Let’s see—how can you manipulate to get the best opportunities? You could pretend, just for once, to exercise restraint. Yes, just hang back, especially early in the year. You could make a game of it. That should do it. Then jump in mid year, and save everyone who’s completely overdone it and gotten in over their heads. You’ll look like a hero–a classic monkey move. Have fun.

Rooster: Your analytical, thoughtful, and precise approach to life won’t win you any friends this year. The qi will be moving along with a reckless abandon that you disapprove of and find daunting. Your best approach is to practice patience, and refrain from criticizing others. You’re quite capable of sustaining a long term approach and delaying gratification. Exercise that super power now.

Dog: OK pal, you’re free this year to go off leash. Have fun, the qi will feel familiar and friendly to you. It’s like an old friend has returned and let you out of the house. Go have some adventures, take a trip, enjoy the rewards of having stolidly carried out your duties for the last couple of years.

Pig: Focus on the fact that you made it through the Snake year. This year will either be about repair, or a renewal of fun and good cheer, depending on how you managed last year. Don’t overdue it; take your time. Lay the groundwork for 2015 when you will be asked to host the party and reintroduce everyone to the arts of tea and fine dining.

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Year of the Horse

IMG_3871xThis year was so special I gave a rare interview about the coming year. You can hear it by clicking below. (Note: the actual piece is about 11 minutes long, no matter what the little time code says.

 

 

seminars4a

 

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Coffee and Me

OK you probably won’t believe this, but I haven’t had a cup of coffee for 40 years, until this morning. This odd achievement, if you want to call it that, wasn’t out of some high moral ground or sense of nutritional superiority. It’s just that when I had my first cup of coffee in college it must have been pretty awful percolated stuff and it made me quite sick. Shortly after that I was introduced to the gentle art of Chinese tea and I just never looked back. I have an impressive collection of Yi Xing teapots, gaiwans, and assorted rare oolongs to show for it.

Maybe it’s because of the Snake year, or just the shift in perspective that comes with age (yes, I’m in my early 60’s,) but I just got very curious about this coffee experience. I have always loved the smell of freshly roasted coffee beans, so I decided to have a little coffee adventure. I would make one exquisite cup, in the morning of course after a good breakfast, and see what happened. My version of bungy jumping.

First I had to buy some. I thought this would be easy. Wrong. I stood in front of the coffee section at my local health food store for 20 minutes in utter confusion and embarrassment. All those different roasts, all those different types of beans. How the heck to figure it out. And then, how to work the machine that grinds it. I finally swallowed my pride and confessed to the store clerk that I was trying coffee for the first time and needed a little help. Turns out he was a coffee enthusiast and was delighted to have a newby to teach. I came home with a bag of freshly ground Guatamalan dark. Less acid, less caffeine, but a full rich taste.

The next morning I had to figure out how to brew the stuff. I had inherited a filter apparatus from a previous room mate, along with some of those brown filter papers. I googled “coffee, perfect brewing,” and came up with a dazzling assortment of opinions on the matter. But after settling on what looked like a reasonable approach, I went to work. I added a good sized dollop of organic half and half to the resulting brew, sat down at my sunny kitchen table, and savored my triumphant entry into the coffee world. It tasted pretty good.

I waited. I expected the shakes, heart palpitations, nausea, stomach pain. Nothing happened. I went to my desk and opened my email. Still nothing; no buzzy feeling, no jitters, nothing. But, and here’s the amazing thing, I romped happily and easily through hours of office work–the stuff I normally groan and complain about and have to drag myself through–all this I just danced through, calmly and efficiently. I think I was even humming a little tune. After an hour of this clear, focused work I dusted off my hands and said “ok, what’s next?”

Then it hit me. Oh, THIS is why people drink coffee! I could get used to this. But of course the true test would come that night. I’m normally a good sound sleeper, and there’s nothing that I let interfere with my precious sleep. I was wary of the effects of this single cup of java, even ten hours later. But alas, I slept like a baby that night.

Now, I can’t say coffee will ever replace my enchantment with the world of tea. However, my friend just sent me a recipe for a morning brew made with organic dark roast coffee, a little raw cream, a dash of honey, salt, raw butter, and gelatin. A warming, metabolism boosting nutritional drink.  I can’t wait to try this tomorrow morning. And think of the work I’ll get done!

 

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Carrying your Oar Inland: An Astrology Lesson from Odysseus

In the Chinese astrology I practice,  called Zi Wei Dou Shu, there is a little used feature of the chart called the Ming Ruler and the Shen Ruler. The only instruction I’ve ever found about this is that the Ming Ruler is the star (or influence) that reveals the potential of the first half of your life, and the Shen Ruler the potential of the second half of life. That’s it. And since these stars are usually different from those found in the actual Ming and Shen boxes, I have often wondered how much significance to give them.

If you are a follower of astrology, either Chinese or Western, you know that every life chart is a synthesis of many factors. It’s the whole soup you’re looking at, not a list of ingredients. So knowing how to integrate this Ming and Shen information, understanding where it fits and how it influences the total pattern described in the chart, is important.

Recently I revisited the myth of Odysseus while reading a book about second half of life tasks. (Stay with me. You’ll see how this relates to the Ming/Shen question in a minute.) Here’s the part of the story that most people gloss over: when Odysseus returns home to Ithaca after his famous hero’s journey, he is given a second task. He is told to take his oar and walk it inland. He is to go on and on, until he gets to a place where nobody has ever seen the sea or knows what an oar is used for. When he meets someone who tells him his oar looks like a winnowing shovel, he is to stick the oar in the ground and make appropriate sacrifices.

This bit always seemed to me to be a crucial part of the myth. But what does it have to do with astrology and the discernment of your life path? The Ming Ruler is a guiding influence for the first half of life. While the whole chart describes our life curriculum, this particular star tells us how we go about our first half of life journey. This part of the journey is often about the outer world tasks we must undertake–things like relationships, work and career, how to make money, education, family raising, etc. But in the second half of life we are required to journey inward. Like Oddyseus, we must carry our oar, the thing that most symbolizes our accomplishments, to a place far inland. When we find ourselves in completely strange territory, where the gods don’t even recognize this thing we’ve done all our lives that we think is so solid and worthy, that is where we are asked to plant our oar and make appropriate sacrifices.

In the Zi Wei system, we can find guidance for this inward adventure from the star that is our Shen Ruler. What style of exploration does this star suggest? Do we take this quest on like a general or a warrior, with discipline and courage? Or is it more of quiet withdrawal, a gentle turning away like a trip to the mountain tea house? Do we do it in the company of friends, or will we be solitary sojourners? And what should we make of the requirement to sacrifice? In the Oddysey, our hero must make a sacrifice to Poseidon, the God of the Sea, who’s been dogging him with trouble throughout his ten year trip.
So what is the one issue you’ve been struggling with all your life? Who, or what, is your Poseidon? Our Shen Ruler tells us how to make peace with this, not through DOING something differently (that’s first half of life thinking,) but by turning inward, having the courage to go to a completely unknown place, and giving up our carefully constructed sense of self; in effect, letting it all go.

Sounds scary and difficult after all you’ve accomplished in life. But then you’ve got that star, that Shen Ruler, to guide your way. And you’ve got the whole second half of life to make the journey, to complete the return. Is it time to begin?

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