Many meditation retreats include periods of “mindful movement” -- of taking the practice of sitting meditation into motion. Taiji, qigong, yoga asana and walking meditation are common forms for this kind of mindful movement practice -- though it really can be any movement at all, formal or completely spontaneous: washing the dishes, chopping carrots, aimless wandering, or whatever. As long as the physical body is in motion, and we’re being consciously attentive to that motion (i.e. mind and body both are participating, simultaneously, in the “feeling”) -- then we’re engaged in mindful movement.
In one recent retreat, I found myself drawn strongly to the practice both of very slow walking meditation, and a qigong/taiji form known as “cloud hands.” The walking practice is one that I’m quite familiar with, and frequently enjoy in the context of sitting meditation retreats. “Cloud hands,” however, is a form that I don’t typically practice, so it was really interesting finding myself doing it.
For those of you not already familiar with this form, here’s a short video clip, the first 20 seconds of which features a (beautifully accomplished!) demonstration of cloud-hands. As you’ll see, the hands move slowly and smoothly, in the manner of gentle clouds floating through a vast blue sky: hence the name of the form.
The movement affects the flow of qi (life-force energy) through the meridians in specific ways. It can also be used to signify and support the taiji player’s attitude toward all arising phenomena: relating to thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions as being similar to clouds passing in the sky, not to be interfered with in any way, but simply observed, with a kind of detached though appreciative interest.
What I found particularly interesting, in my recent exploration of cloud hands, was that there was a certain speed of movement that seemed palpably to transcend the movement/stillness polarity. I could perceive that moving more quickly than this “perfect” speed gave rise to feelings of grasping at some intended goal or destination: of something to accomplish or someplace else to arrive at. And moving more slowly than the “perfect” speed gave rise to feelings of stagnation or resistance: a sense of holding back, a kind of clinging to inactivity or fixated stillness.
At that “perfect” speed, however, I had the sense of not really knowing (from the perspective of the typical functioning of my nervous system and/or cognitive structures) whether I was moving or not-moving. There was a kind of shift of consciousness, and/or transformation of the functioning of my nervous system, that was immensely sweet, a feeling of deep surrender, deep relief, and a profound sense of intimacy.
Yet I noticed also that aspects of my being resisted this mightily: it was too vulnerable, too naked. But then a simple ahh would allow me to continue to open and flow, acknowledging the resistance/constriction without being led down its dualistic pathway.
Within the moving/not-moving “space” was a feeling of being in-love-with-everything: such immense tenderness in allowing phenomena to arise and dissolve, in complete ungraspable freedom, allowing my “self” to arise and dissolve, in complete ungraspable freedom, moment by moment by moment ....
After practicing like this for fifteen minutes or a half hour -- within what Roger Jahnke calls the “dynamic equilibrium” between rest and action -- I felt that there had been some kind of phase shift, a new way of being in the world, new software downloaded, so to speak. One way of describing these changes (as Jahnke does here) is in relation to the functioning of the human nervous system:
“Much of what is described in traditional medical systems as the ‘balance’ of forces, such as yin and yang in the Chinese system, can be associated with the dualistic components of the nervous system. In the central nervous system yin is rest and yang is action. Balance is the state between rest and action called dynamic equilibrium. This is the state that training in Taiji (Tai Chi) and Qigong (Chi Gung) seeks to refine. In the autonomic nervous system yin may be associated with the parasympathetic and yang may be associated with the sympathetic. The balance of yin and yang is associated with homeostasis.”
“Because the western world view has generally had a difficult time understanding and accepting the concepts of Qi (chi), prana or vital force from the Asian systems, there has been a strong trend toward explaining the effects of yoga, qigong, acupuncture, etc through the mechanisms of the nervous system. While these practices do have a definite effect upon neurological function, with consequent effects on body systems, the neurological mechanism may actually be an intermediary for a more refined and less quantifiable system of subtle energies ...”
This point that Mr. Jahnke makes -- about the relationship between what western medicine/science calls the “nervous system” and what Asian systems refer to as “qi” -- is one that I explore further in the essay Proving Qigong: Who’s Zoomin’ Who?, which I encourage you to have a look at, if you haven’t already.