Correct mind intent, plus physical repetition over time, equals practice.
Or, ‘If it ain’t raining, it ain’t training’.
Below is something I wrote as a practice aide-memoire for myself in 2018, then adapted for my students a few years ago, and have returned to this weekend though necessity. It’s been a hard week, not only for myself, but for several of my loved ones. The way this shows up for me is blinding headaches, my organism is very straightforward and unsubtle in expressing distress these days, which I appreciate. Non-mysterious pain is always instructive, whether it comes from oneself or from others, (and there is not always a distinction to be made). Many people harm themselves by making sure others will attack them. I have certainly done this. How unsatisfying is the feeling of righteousness as the eviction notice arrives!
This week a very friendly, skilful local builder has been repairing holes in the exterior and interior walls of this flat. It coincides with reading about ‘Tonic Masculinity’, brought to my attention last month by a friend, which led me to an interesting conclusion regarding British tradesmen and to add a few other related thoughts below. (Language note: there’s a fair bit of Anglo Saxon obscenity toward the end of the section ‘That one time when’, in case you have youngsters listening or reading nearby.)
To be an Alewife
‘Brew new wine from the dregs of the Ancients.’ Is a Taoist instruction that I love. It doesn’t say, ‘Preserve the dregs in a hermetically sealed vessel and venerate them’. Nor does it recommend throwing away the dregs and synthesising something totally new. Both those approaches are as common in T’ai Chi as they are in the wider culture - slavishly following methods that no longer make sense because they seem unchangeable. Or mindlessly throwing out every tradition and principle we had for the sake of a clean slate and a carte blanche. These are both methods without courage.
There is so much goodness, so much wisdom, right under our noses, widely available, and almost all of it is plain, unglamourous and takes effort and care to cultivate. It’s why it is unpopular. Also, the benefits can rarely be immediately seen. How to measure the times when one didn’t rise to provocation? How to count the heart attacks or mental breakdowns we did not have? Well at least with T’ai Chi there are numerous very good studies, but you get my point. Stalking the benefits of sustained practice is tricky in a culture which only prizes surfaces. I raise a glass, or rather my mug of Yorkshire Tea, to all of you attempting to stop your mind whirring, pick up the pieces of your family, locale or wider community, and endeavour to do that one thing you know were called for.
Here are some things I have learned, and am currently relearning. Without correct mind intent, even if practising, one is 'going through the motions'. Without physical repetition you have imaginary practice, only good for developing imaginary skills.Mind and body correctly joined is a joy in itself. The answer to 'Why do it?' is, 'The question is not relevant'. You will find out by doing what it is you will cultivate. You can adjust or desist based on outcomes. This is how all of our ancestors learned anything they were not directly told or shown. There is always risk involved in action. Transformation generally requires a living culture to support us in which to grow, and sadly these have often been torn apart by the Machine. I am lucky to have had a pocket of lively martial arts culture, to have wandered into the ‘Dark Mountain diaspora’ and to have a large family who have all made it their business to re-brew something rich and strong to sustain us. By definition a culture is alive, changing, growing, somewhat consistent and contained. Not all cultures are beneficial, the effects upon the body of, say, Lactobacillus acidophilus and the organisms which cause necrotising fasciitis are radically different. One notices the same tendencies amongst ideas and practices in the body of the population: some add to the overall wellbeing of people, other ideas consume their hosts from within and can lead to severe mental illness, self-harm or even death, whether by suicide or murder. What almost all the necrotising ideas have in common, including those I have heard myself say from time to time, is this:
It’s always someone else’s fault.
Looking at my late Grandmaster’s old 1980s photocopied instruction booklet from the BTCCA, we find two instructions for studying T’ai Chi Ch’uan: 1- Start T’ai Chi. 2 - Continue T’ai Chi. He had a very fine sense of humour.
So, we just start. With singing, drawing, meditation, caring for someone, getting well, crafting, writing, T'ai Chi, gardening, studying… In my experience, there is no 'correct state of mind' in which to begin. Starting is so much more important than anything else. Only you know what it is you are meant to do, and my habit is to trust people I meet to find that knowing in themselves. However, I do know a thing or two about starting and continuing. If you are finding it hard to set out, try this:
Are you feeling annoyed? Do annoyed practice.
Are you feeling angry / inadequate / over-excited / dull / bored / confused, etc? Do your practice anyway.
Pretty soon it won't be at all like it was when you started. In fact, by the end you probably won't remember what flavour of affected state you were in because your energy will have moved and changed.
Move the pen or brush, make or mend that small thing, hum an old or new tune, write some random letters and words, do the exercise or warm ups, sit and watch the breath or feel the body, make soup for your brother. Something will change in us and therefore in the world. Nothing changes by sitting there dwelling on it. Even just walking around aimlessly is better than that. What is this thing that changes? What makes it change? What is this mysterious intent thing? These are good questions. I have been working on that last one 20 years, both awake and asleep, and I still don't have an answer in words, but I have a strong feeling, and a whole bunch more excellent questions with which to break my brain. And now your brains too, due to this Substack.
The secret guild of martial artist builders
Since I moved back to England I have needed tradesmen to work for me many times in flats and boats I have either owned or rented: decorators, electricians, fridge engineers, plumbers, boiler fitters, roofers, builders, you name it. I am a practical person, but have not had the time nor inclination to get good at all the household things, instead I specialised in sewing all the curtains and furnishings, repairing things, and growing my own food. Workmen would often remark at my collection of swords, sabres and staffs in the hallway, and the conversation would sometimes turn to martial arts. We would have great discussions about whatever style of art they’d practised.
Here’s the strange thing; every single one of the men who had studied martial arts, of any kind (including boxing, Taekwondo, Karate, Jiu Jitsu, Muay Thai, cage fighting, Capoeira, MMA…) were excellent at their work, courteous, prompt and straightforward to deal with. Not a single martial artist builder was lazy, rude, disrespectful, creepy or unskilful. The same cannot be said of the non martial artist tradesmen, where over 70% of them were either rude or patronising to me or just poor at their work. Is there a secret guild? Last week I told my latest excellent builder in Bournemouth,(who also did Muay Thai, and whose brothers, who are also in the building business, are both cage fighters), that he should start one, as they’d clean up, for sure. We talked about what training did for our minds as well as our bodies, how it toned and mellowed us as well as lifted our moods and channelled our energies. This is as true for women as men, by the way, it just happens that in UK, most household ‘trades’ are still blokes. After 17 years as sole mistress of my own household I will say this: there is a difference, and it reads a lot like what some of the guys on here have been referring to as 'Tonic Masculinity' so I thought you'd like to know. Anyway, it is not just positive to interact with, it earns them good money and an easy time with their female clients: in this case, me.
Saying no to the auld enmity
I am a feminist. I remember shocking a friend by saying that back in 2017. His comment was something like, 'But you're not being horrible and you don't seem to hate men!' This is true. I am not an especially well-read feminist, but I grew up reading about what we then called ‘Women’s Lib’ in Spare Rib every month, which was superb and opened my teenage eyes to a vast world beyond my seaside town. Despite some great reads, my feminism is largely based on my lived life, not other people’s theories. For me it is simple: Feminism means a woman and a man are of equal worth as humans. They may be different in many ways, but not in value. All the things that naturally run from that to do with pay, education, rights, freedoms and responsibilities, etc, should be self-evident. That’s it.
I am blessed with excellent male friends, colleagues, T'ai Chi classmates, students, nephews, a brother and teachers. Why would I seek to be at war with the opposite sex? It would be exhausting; frankly, I don’t have the spare life-energy. We will need to work together with and for each other, with love and solidarity, to combat the alienating effects of the Machine. There is one thing we can already work at together: fostering Tonic Youth.There are lots of us, not just parents, but aunts and friends like myself, who help the youngsters in our families and communities flourish, become antifragile, and not succumb to the myriad parasitic mind-sets on offer from the metasystem’s open-all-hours doom purveyors. So forgive the pun, (and anyway Sonic Youth were awesome.) I’ll talk about Tonic Youth in another post, but my guess is you already know what it is. It’s what Youth should be and sometimes still is: bold, free, convivial, energetic, un-surveilled, exploratory, ever-changing, fast-learning, hopeful, nourishing, cherished.
That one time when
Last summer I experienced for the first time the joy of a man standing up for me, with me, completely appropriately, and without overreaction or fear. My man and I were on the nearby beach at sunset, watching a huge grey seal that was lolloping up the sand toward us, a very rare sight in Bournemouth. We had been laying in the sand, chilling out, not talking, just being creatures feeling land-joy and making quiet noises to each other. The seal seemed very interested in us, perhaps we seemed a little seal-like, or at least peaceful and horizontal. As we were smiling and marvelling, some very drunk holiday makers with their dog off the lead staggered our way and their dog began to attack the seal. We shouted to them to get their dog on a lead, as they clearly hadn’t seen the wild creature due to their beer goggles. The seal turned and just about managed to make it to the surf and swim away before the dog started biting. At which point the dog owners turned to start swearing at us, and one man began a tirade: ‘I have acid in this bottle and I am going to throw it over you, cunt! I’m gonna fuckin’ maim you, bitch! Gonna melt your face! It’s acid!’ All of which was a total lie, as it was clearly a bottle of Highland Spring water, however, the ill intent was genuine. My man stood up, and in a calm authoritative voice told everyone to calm down and stop being so rude and aggressive, but in a stance that said there would be immediate consequences if things kicked off. Now, I hate pointless fights, but I have been in a couple, and both times the guys eventually ran away, (for different reasons, but that’s another story). It’s not something I’ll rely on, and reminder ‘self-defence’ classes are on my list for this spring.
The drunk grockles lurched off shouting death-threats (yes, actual death-threats; lockdown made British people antisocial and more aggressive) But it was the pure, simple, no-need-to-think-about-it response from the young man that I’ll always remember. Maybe it’s a generational thing, maybe he was brought up really well, but from what I have gleaned, he has always taken care of his friends in the moment, at some personal cost. I had never experienced it before from a partner, only ambivalence, equivocation or even victim-blaming. (For instance when being threatened with a gun in Kashmir, or beaten with a bamboo pole in riots when our train was attacked in Chandigarh, or when groped by a priest in Vrindavan in 1992, or that time I was attacked by some weird guy wanting to fight me ‘Outside, now!’ in a club in Bournemouth in 1989.)
I can tell you that the studies are true: willingness to commit to the safety of someone you’re with is very attractive. I feel similarly about platonic friends who have rallied to my aid, or to each other’s defence. I feel uncomplicatedly good about myself when I appropriately protect those I love. It’s adaptive, it’s caring, it’s natural. No need for the whole ‘is it sexism?’ angle, as women clearly do it too, though it may look a little different. It’s part of what I wrote about in Godsiblingry two weeks ago. When I have been disloyal, I have always regretted it. In a culture where commitment is laughed at, whether to friends, a path, or family, I’m gonna go full 1985 teen Goth anti-mainstream and say this: up yours to the atomising, anti-human pile-ons. If instead we’ve got each other’s backs, that’s way more radical and much more fun.
Until next week. Maybe see you on the beach.
The images this week are drawings I made for Dark Mountain - Fabula I wanted to make something elemental with primordial materials: skin, quill, galls, rust.
This week’s good thing: Is Mute an ensemble art exhibition in London, UK curated by Nicky Hirst. There’s so much there about absence, music, the space where things have happened, or could happen, the traces of presence, the shape of silence. Plus - Andrew Cross’ video of a long, excellent drum solo by Carl Palmer, of Emmerson, Lake and Palmer fame. Go and see / hear the show, it’s on until 23rd March and there is a closing evening celebration open to all at 6pm on 23rd. I went to see the show and catch up with Nicky this week. I am still riffing on it in my mind’s eye. Recommended.
My recent conversation with Iain McGilchrist is also now up on his YouTube channel.
Learned that from Ben McNutt, a very good bushcraft instructor and expedition leader.
We risk losing the culture if we don’t brew new wine. But we risk losing the culture if we do, and fail. As with attempting to brew any ancient recipe, it takes both good technique and courage.
Yes, that includes thinking about being a ‘better person’.
My teacher told me that this was also the answer given by Aleister Crowley when asked by an adept if the entity they were summoning was truly real or not. He spotted this important detail when reading Crowley’s ‘Magic Without Tears’ many years ago.
Some things are clearly someone’s fault: ‘Egbert shot Edwin with an arrow.’ I am talking about the pervasive internal thought pattern that ‘everything is someone else’s fault’, I am not saying no harm is ever caused by specific people or groups of people. Incredibly, these two seemingly different things can simultaneously be true. Ability to tolerate paradox is the no1 mark of someone I am going to get along with marvellously. A personal measure of how my practice is going is how much paradox I am able to bear before collapsing into blame, catastrophizing or ‘problem-solving bloke’ mind. (No offence meant to blokes, it’s a useful tool when used correctly.)
No, you cannot have his number.
Also a Sonic Youth based T shirt company in Glasgow, but still, it’s a funny and useful phrase, so I am running with it.
Iain McGilchrist recommended Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s excellent book 'Antifragile’ to me in 2013, as his best book of the previous year. I highly recommend it. It has been incredibly useful describing one of the main qualities our type of T’ai Chi appears to cultivate in people, after some years’ practice.
Currently quaintly called ‘cancel culture’ rather than something more appropriate like ‘mass semi-automated precision-targeted complete dehumanisation vendettas’.
More Breakfast Club than Brazil.
"mass semi-automated precision-targeted complete dehumanisation vendettas..."
Brilliant. As is the rest of it. :)
Caroline, Beautiful work - both the words and the art. D