No Practice

Sometimes my morning qigong practice consists entirely of sitting and gazing out the window.  I used to feel guilty about this, as if I were dodging my commitment, succumbing to laziness, just plain goofing off.  But my dog, a Chinese Pug whose ancestors lived in Tibetan monasteries and who knows a thing or two about these matters, is teaching me the value of simplicity. She is a master of the Taoist meditation practice called “sitting and forgetting.”

With the quietude of an old monk, she spends some portion of each day sitting by the window watching life unfold in the yard outside. One morning I took my tea and joined her instead of immediately starting my daily qigong exercise. We sat on the landing halfway up the stairs (her favorite spot,) where there’s a view of the garden from two corner windows. Squirrels dashed about; the neighbor’s black tabby cat sat quietly watching the fish pond; woodpeckers dived at the feeders; a few falling leaves, harbingers of autumn, traced a lazy path through the air. We just sat and watched. I sipped my tea. I thought maybe I should get on with my morning practice instead of wasting time staring out the window. But then I poured another cup of tea, my gesture as simple and natural as the drifting autumn leaves.

Sometimes our practices become self-improvement projects. It’s not easy to notice when this happens.  At what point does commitment become drudgery, discipline a lifeless and repetitive routine? How do we stay true to the living moment, the ever fresh and spontaneous movement of the qi?  Surely daily practice is important, you argue. We couldn’t just go along doing whatever we want like children at play. After all, we have to show up for work every day. How will we make progress, stay healthy, achieve our goals, if we don’t practice every day?  Well, yes. I know these arguments well, and I agree. My daily practice creates a sturdy vessel for me. Anchored by the consistency of that container, I’m better able to handle life’s unexpected and unpredictable events with some measure of grace.

On the other hand, perhaps the ultimate mastery is the practice of “no-practice,” just doing each thing as it comes up. Yes, like a child. Right now, I’m gazing out the window.  My dog leans peacefully against me. I reach for another cup of tea.

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The hCG Diet: Don’t Be Fooled….

When I first heard about the popular “hCG diet” I didn’t pay much attention. I figured it was just another fad. But then I noticed otherwise smart and reasonable people raving about it. So I checked it out. Maybe there was really something to it, otherwise how could  sensible intelligent people be taken in?

If you’re unfamiliar with this diet, here’s how it works: hCG is a hormone produced by women in the early stages of pregnancy. It stimulates the hypothalamus (the master hormone regulating gland in the brain) to move fat and nutrients to the placenta. This mobilization of fat into the bloodstream is what caught the eye of the weight loss industry (read sharks wanting to make a quick buck from people desperate to drop a few pounds before beach season.)

The diet plan is to take hCG along with a starvation diet of 500 calories a day. You can get the hCG from health food stores in the form of sublingual drops. Do people lose weight? You bet they do, and rapidly. If you want to get into your high school prom dress in two weeks, success is practically guaranteed. Is this smart, or even a successful way to manage weight in the long term? Absolutely not! I consider it misguided, crazy, and downright dangerous.

First of all, everyone will lose a lot of weight quickly on a 500 calorie diet. But the crucial factor people are conveniently ignoring is that this calorie level will put your metabolism into starvation mode. In other words, your metabolism will slow down significantly to keep you alive, then when you begin to eat normally again, even a very healthy diet, your body will cling to every calorie you eat and store it. The result–rapid weight gain. Back where you started and probably fatter.

Meanwhile, you’ve done nothing to change your lifestyle, your eating habits, or your unhealthy relationship to food. Also, I’m not a fan of putting exogenous hormones into the body, even if they are bio-identical. This practice suppresses our body’s own regulatory system. There’s just no way to predict the possible downstream effects of upsetting this complex and delicate system.

So please! If your friends rave about this diet to you, and brag about the 10 pounds they lost in 10 days, please don’t be taken in. There’s no way around what it takes to achieve healthy weight loss–a lifetime of sound food choices, a conscious relationship to food and eating, and regular exercise that fits your needs.

Enough said.

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Qigong Healing

Qigong is getting popular. That’s good. It’s not quite at the level of yoga or pilates, but at least most non-Asian people have heard of it, though they may not be sure exactly what it is. I’m both happy and worried about this. As a life long martial artist, I understand qigong in the old fashioned way; to me it’s a type of kung fu, a whole way of life, a self cultivation practice. But its emerging popularity in western culture puts it at risk. I’m starting to see qigong classes pop up in gyms, community recreation classes, and yoga studios. Don’t get me wrong. I think this is wonderful. Qigong is a treasure that should be available to everyone. The problem is that many people are starting to view it as a pill they can take to fix some problem. Qigong is not a magic pill, and if treated that way will only disappoint.

I recently spoke with a friend who is struggling with a mysterious chronic illness. She had heard about qigong and even taken a class at her local yoga studio. She asked me if I thought qigong could help her get better. I found myself dithering. Well yes, I wanted to say. But are you willing to change your life? Are you willing to delve deeply into the heart of qigong, and discover the ways in which it can nourish your spirit and regulate your life? Or are you hoping for an exotic magic bullet?

What I ended up saying, after stammering a bit, was rather strange. I said, “Well, it depends on whether you fall in love with it. If you’re really engaged with it, if you can allow it to change you, to lead you to new places, then yes it will help a lot. It might even heal you.”

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Simple Medicine

A recent article in the Sunday New York Times reported about a school district in Arizona that has sunk 33 million dollars into technology in the last six years. The idea was to modernize every classroom with the latest computer technology, putting every student on the fast track to academic brilliance.

But the results so far have been underwhelming. Though every six year old now has a laptop and can whip up a power point presentation on Shakespeare, basic reading, writing, and math skills have stagnated, and teachers have not received a raise since 2005. The obvious point is that gadgets don’t necessarily improve learning, and perhaps simple human interaction between kids and creative, committed teachers could have better results.

When I graduated from Chinese medical school 20 years ago, I was surprised to discover a software program that recommended treatment plans, herbal prescriptions and point combinations, based on your input of the patient’s signs and symptoms.  I was shocked. Wasn’t this what I had just gone through four rigorous years of training to be able to do? What was the patient seeing me for if all of this could be done with a computer program?

In Western medicine, the physical exam is almost a lost art. Instead, doctors order lab tests to determine the patient’s diagnosis. Indeed, even among Chinese medical practitioners, it’s very common to order up a battery of functional lab tests to determine such things as digestive system health, adrenal function, etc. I love these tools and make ample use of them myself. I’m all for accuracy in diagnosis, and happy to have assistance from technology to help my patients get better. But often I wonder if we, like our western medical counterparts and that Arizona school district, have forgotten about the power of simple human interaction.

There is a magical exchange that takes place between a caring doctor and a patient, or a dedicated teacher and a student. It’s not so much a transmission of information, or a cure. It’s more a recognition. It says, “ah yes, we are both human; let’s walk a little way together. Let’s keep each other company for a while on this journey.” Simple, and powerful.

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Practicing…

Every morning I walk to the park near my house and go through a particular routine. Though there are variables in the routine, it always contains the same basic building blocks. I start with some simple qigong to warm up. Then I walk in circles.  That’s right, circles. After I’ve worn a groove in the wet grass, I add a series of complex directional changes.  These probably look quite dazzling and strange to the dog walkers passing by.  I’m sure they have absolutely no clue what I’m doing.  For the most part, they politely ignore me.  Every once in a while an over friendly off leash dog will bound up and shove a wet face up against me, knocking me out of my circle.  This is all part of the practice.

Some of you may recognize what I’m doing as a martial art called Bagua Zhang.  Not that it matters.  It could be any type of practice that one takes up in life. The point is what it gives to your life.  A kung fu practice (and by that I mean anything to which you devote yourself for a long period of time with commitment, fascination, and dare I say love, in order to develop your skill,) hones your character. Kung Fu is uncanny in its ability to both delight and frustrate you. You can continually improve, but like a mirage that keeps receding as you trudge longingly towards it, you can never seem to get where you’d like to be with it.

So you keep going to the park every morning. You keep walking that stupid circle.  Even when you didn’t get enough sleep, or feel grumpy, or stiff, and would rather be doing just about anything else.  Because you know now how much you’d miss that morning session.

And when all hell is breaking lose in your life, when it’s really hard to keep it together because lots of crazy stuff is going on, and you just don’t know how to deal with whatever big boulder is coming at you…..well at least you know you’ve got your practice, and your practice will always be there for you.  And somehow, you’re not even sure how this happened, the fact that you got up every morning and showed up, and dealt with the crazy Labrador retriever that kept knocking into you, and did this day after day for who knows how long….somehow this has made you strong.

So you keep practicing……

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A Meditation on Work….

Labor Day. The usual associations are; a long party weekend at the end of summer, the beginning of school, and for the upper class, the last day on which it is acceptable to wear white gloves. I detest Labor Day weekend. For one thing it brings a throng of tourists to the coastal town where I live, and a nightmare of snarled traffic. But the worst thing is, in these times of economic despair, with so many people out of work and unable to afford even the most basic necessities of life, most people don’t have a clue what Labor Day was originally about.

Here’s a very brief history lesson. In 1894 there was this huge labor strike in Pullman, Illinois. In a nutshell, railroad workers walked out because the Pullman Company lowered their wages and extended their work day to 16 hours during an economic downturn.  Sound familiar? During that fateful summer 125,000 workers went on strike, which pretty much brought the railroad industry to a halt. President Grover Cleveland brought the military in to break the strike and many workers died. In the aftermath of all this, Cleveland created this insipid little holiday called Labor Day as a concession to honor (read appease,) American workers.

Can you imagine 125,000 workers in any given city today, walking out over excessive hours and low pay? I don’t think so.  We’ve been too well brainwashed and intimidated.  It seems the American worker will now accept all sorts of mistreatment at the hands of corporate America with nary a word of protest.  After all, we say, I’m lucky to still have a job.

So I’m actually protesting Labor Day by going to my office and seeing clients as usual on Monday.  I refuse to accept this meaningless token of a holiday, this distraction from the real issues of classicism and corporate greed.  And in honor of the real meaning of work, I offer the following from Irish writer and philosopher, John O’Donohue:

For Work:

“May the light of your soul bless your work with love and warmth of heart. May you see in what you do the beauty of your soul. May the sacredness of your work bring light and renewal to those who work with you and to those who see and receive your work.

May your work never exhaust you. May it release wellsprings of refreshment, inspiration, and excitement. May you never become lost in bland absences. May the day never burden. May dawn find hope in your heart, approaching your new day with dreams, possibilities, and promises.

May evening find you gracious and fulfilled. May you go into the night blessed, sheltered, and protected. May your soul calm, console, and renew you.”

(From “To Bless the Space Between Us,” by John O’Donohue)

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Back at it…..

I’ve been immersed for the past ten months in classical feng shui school.  I thought it would be fun and easy.  After all, I’m a doctor of Chinese medicine and figured feng shui would just be like treating the house instead of the person.  Yin and Yang, five elements, wind, water, qi flow, how hard could all this be? Boy was I knocked for loop! Totally humbled!

What I discovered is that real feng shui, not the popular stuff which warns everyone about having their toilet in the wealth corner, is an extremely complex science. I burned the midnight oil for months in order to master the concepts and formulas. But I’m so glad I made the commitment to learn the real thing. Now I’m ready to go out and really help people with their living and work environments, using a powerful set of feng shui tools that includes the amazing Flying Star system.

You can check out my new feng shui site at www.chispaces.com. I also have a blog on that site called Chi Flow.  Enjoy, and let me know what you think.

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2011: The Year of the Metal Rabbit

 

THE YEAR OF THE METAL RABBIT, 2011

Hang on. It’s almost over. If you’re reeling from the harshness and unpredictability of this past Metal Tiger Year, you’re not alone. Many of us, including this exhausted Metal Tiger, are more than happy to say goodbye to the turmoil of 2010. What’s coming up is a completely different flavor of qi. Continue reading

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Year of the Metal Rabbit, 2011

THE YEAR OF THE METAL RABBIT, 2011

Hang on. It’s almost over.  If you’re reeling from the harshness and unpredictability of this past Metal Tiger Year, you’re not alone. Many of us, including this exhausted Metal Tiger, are more than happy to say goodbye to the turmoil of 2010. What’s coming up is a completely different flavor of qi. Continue reading

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The Vitamin D Problem, Part 2 (including the role of Vitamin A)

The big issue at the heart of the Vitamin D controversy, (see 12/15 post,) is how much we should take in supplement form.  But I wonder if we’re having the wrong conversation. It seems odd to me that we’re not discussing how human beings met their Vitamin D requirements before supplements were available, and by extension, how we can live and eat to maintain optimal levels without resorting to synthetic supplements. Continue reading

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