Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Some People I Admire

Morihei Ueshiba 1883 - 1969
“Those who are enlightened never stop forging themselves. The realizations of such masters cannot be expressed well in words or theories. The most perfect action echo the patterns found in  nature.” 
To me, O'Sensei is the person I admire most. He is the epitome of never giving up. He persisted and developed himself until the end. 

Wang Zhang Zhai 1885 - 1963
Wang Xiang Zhai, brought standing meditation into the modern age. He was once asked to demonstrate his martial art in public; he just stood there and said this it it. 

Tuvia Bielski 1906 - 1987 
“Our revenge is to live. We may be hunted like animals but we will not become animals. We have all chosen this - to live free, like human beings, for as long as we can. Each day of freedom is a victory. And if we die trying to live, at least we die like human beings.”
Tuvia might seem like a weird choice but I can't think of anyone who fought against the Nazis and saved many people. After the war he came to NY started a moving company and taxi service. To think thousands of people got a ride by him never knowing he waged a serious resistance against the Nazi forces. You can see Daniel Craig play him a dramatization of his life called, Defiance

John Snow 1813 - 1858
Through his own intellectual desire about the 1854 cholera outbreak, he created epidemiology, John Snow tracked down all the cases of cholera in his neighborhood on his own time, he was an anesthesiologist at the time. He also created a dosage scale for the use of choloform and ether as an anesthetic. Pure genius!  You can read about him in the book Ghost Map

Leonardo Davinci 1452 - 1519
“It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.” My grandfather told me about Davinci when I was a child. We often revere names like Gandalf and Merlin but truly if there real wizards Davinci would be one. 

Barak Obama 1961 - 
During the 2012 debate with Romney, Barak encouraged Romney to attack a point of that he made. After patiently waiting he totally did an intellectual Aikido move and turned it around on Romney.  I knew at that moment he would win the election. Some of Obama's best lines can be seen here. Republicans tried to tear this guy down, and time and time again they failed. He outclassed them.

“I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas.... I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners-- an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins of every race and every hue scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”

Charles Darwin 1809 - 1882
“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that  this or that problem will never be solved by science.” Darwin's persistence and drive to understand nature changed the world. 

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simon 1475- 1564
"If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn't seem so wonderful at all." He is here because of his love of the human body. Looking at his work you can see he had an amazing view of humanity. He also hauled his own stones, made his own tools and hid in the caves when political fanatics went against his patrons.  

Constantine Brancusi  1876 - 1957
“They are imbeciles who call my work abstract. That which they call abstract is the most realistic, because what is real is not the exterior but the idea, the essence of things.” He made absolutely beautiful sculptures and taught me about universal beauty and the importance of relativism.  

Paul C├ęzanne 1839 - 1906 
“One had to immerse oneself in one's surroundings and intensely study nature or one's subject to understand how to recreate it,” and “With an apple I will astonish Paris.” Cezanne didn't have a show until he was in his late 50s. I love his paintings but most of all I admire his commitment to understanding nature. 

Friday, August 14, 2015

Spanish garlic soup: healthy, hearty and perfect for a fall day

Almost a decade ago my family and I flew to Spain and had a hellish plane trip. We arrived in Madrid at midnight starving. After we finally got our rental car we drove to the first place that looked like it had food. When we arrived we searched the menu I remember seeing the words GARLIC and SOUP in the same dish. Even though I never had anything like it before I had to go for it. When the waiter brought out the dish I was blown away, tons or garlic, bread and poached eggs. I still remember the smells. You gotta love that amygdala.  Although it is called Spanish garlic soup I feel eggs are the star of the dish, those poached pillows of awesomeness ooze the golden protein into the broth. All I can say is amazing, restorative and delicious!  

Another great thing about this soup besides amazing taste and heartiness is that it is very easy to make.


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Dreaming and Meditation

Upon entering the house after a night time meditation that invoked the yin power of the full moon into my body,  I realized that summer is fading fast. Then a quick blur of all the projects I had completed since turning 50 this spring spiked in my brain. I have accomplished a lot of projects that I had been wanting to do for years and I challenged myself more than ever.

But the twisty logic I received during my meditation is that my growth isn't from the things I have done it is more about the things I have not done. For years, I have been carrying projects and plans for things that have little chance of materializing due to a number of factors.

So I am not about to pontificate on how growing is about killing your dreams and I am not saying don't have any "pie in the sky" dreams. Dreaming is fun but it is important to focus more energy on the ones you truly want to pursue. You can spend a lot of time dreaming and not producing anything and more importantly not being present in your life. One of the reasons why I meditate often is because it helps inform me about which of my dreams are more doable and more importantly closer to my true self.

Meditation does that because it teaches you the preciousness of energy. Thus helping you clarify what feeds your energy and what depletes your energy. When I started meditating in 1998 in Seattle its effects were immediate. I became more drawn to nature and less drawn to frivolities. So dreaming about something that you truly do not want is more of a drag on your energy than a benefit.

Your friend in the Tao, 


Sunday, July 19, 2015

Pay it forward

In my last post, I told the story of my first step on the martial path. I also explained that I am still on that path today. That means that I have been practicing for about 34 years and along the way there were many great teachers who have spent time explaining and revealing the martial path.  Learning martial arts has helped me a great deal in so many areas of life that an obvious next step is to want to "pay it forward." 

I finally had an opportunity to a few years after moving to Mississippi. In 2003, I started teaching a kid's kung fu class at a community center. I had a handful of students among them were these three brothers, who were pretty small for the their age. The fact that they were playful and funny made them a joy to teach. Their father was a small business owner and had them in all kinds of after school activities, like tennis and such. So I was really surprised to have them in my class. I figured they or he would value more mainstream activities. Never-the-less they enthusiastically embraced the class and attended regularly. The classes were seasonal with long breaks in-between trimesters and subsequent classes became less attended. 

A year later, the oldest of the three brothers saw me eating at a restaurant and approached my table and said, "you know, that stuff you taught me it came in handy." He thanked me for teaching and walked away. I was really blown away. There are only a few times in life when you get to really help someone and see the results. Having received that kind of acknowledgment was really special. Additionally, it reinforced how important it is to "pay it forward" and reveal the secrets of the martial path.  

Monday, July 13, 2015

My First Step On The Martial Arts Path and The Fallen Idols

In the early 70s, my family of five moved to a suburb of NYC from Brooklyn, NY. It was a small town made up of mostly white working class people. I didn’t know it then but that town was a haven for white people fleeing school re-districting. My father had a long beard and long hair; he was a hippie. My parents made hand sewn leather jackets. My father, also did Tai chi, smoked marijuana and was into organic gardening. We clearly did not belong there. 

My parent’s were raised Catholic but never brought us to church. In Brooklyn I remember kids asking me what my religion was and I answered “public.” I guess I thought they were wondering what school I went to as some of the other Italian-American kids on our block went to Catholic school. Being hippies they made every effort to keep our mind’s open. They took us to the Museum of Natural History and MOMA often. My father had Salvador Dali books on the coffee table, along with a copy of the I-Ching and Mother Earth News was always visible. Not going to church or anything created an emptiness in me. I felt left out. I felt like I had no identity. 

As the 70s progressed the pressure to conform wore on my parents. In a few years, we went from no sugar cereals and no TV, to eventually having a TV, and occasionally getting a box of Fruity Pebbles. We were all really excited to own a TV.  I remember my father often practiced Tai chi in our living room. He tried to get me to stand in a Tai chi posture and he would test my balance by pushing on me. I would topple easily. Along with feeling identity-less I also felt physically unstable. I was an insecure kid. 

After dinner, we would all go and sit on my parent’s bed and watch a few shows on TV. In those days there was only one small TV in our house and it was in our parent’s room. My father would watch the show Kung Fu with David Carradine and explain some of the principles illustrated in the show. 

I became enthralled with Kwai Chang Caine. The intro to the show showed Caine dodging spears, fighting an old blind man who can listen to grasshoppers. It also showed him as a vulnerable boy struggling to learn the ways of the Shaolin Temple. The superheroes on TV seemed too ridiculous to take seriously but Caine was someone to look up to. My father loved the show, which only increased its awesomeness and the show also supported his Tai chi and eastern philosophical interests. Without a religion or any other thing to call myself Caine quickly filled a void as a role model. I still can see in my mind specific fighting scenes from episodes and I also tried to reenact them with my younger brother. In one scene Caine fights a man with a long handled ax but holds it closer to the head for better leverage, which my father took time out to explain (maybe that is why it is such a clear memory). During this period my father actually participated in the family. 

Things soon started to change. The times were changing. Every morning all the school kids walked to the bus stop, gathering together to talk about all kinds of stuff and see who would be made fun of and who would fight. Back then we all had to fight. One day some older boy brought an adult magazine to the stop. There was a series of photos of David Carradine, the actor who played Caine, having sex with a woman on the dirt in what appeared to be a teepee with candles all around them. It was a pretty freaky image for 9 or 10 year old to see. I was quite disturbed by it. He was a real hero to me. He was the one that saved people. He healed them when they were sick, counseled them when they were troubled and fought for them when they were being unjustly attacked. I needed Caine now more than ever. 

As we crept closer to the 80s, my father cut his hair shorter, quit Tai chi and tried to be a yuppy. My parents even stopped sewing jackets. The only thing left over from the hippy days was marijuana and solo albums by Lennon and McCartney. My father became quiet and withdrawn. Life changed. Our family changed. I never fit in at school and was always made fun of. The kids at school were quick to point out that my parents didn't look like all the other parents and one kid told me that my parents were witches. As I went on to middle and high school, people thought I was Puerto Rican or Jewish. No one ever considered me white, and many kids often used the words weird, fag, and gay to describe me. As the kids grew older verbal abuse turned into violence and since I was very gregarious I was often the one who they sought out to publicly humiliate. 

The football team made it their mission to beat me down any moment they could. When the teacher turned his back in class or when I went to the bathroom, or just walking down the hallway they would be there smacking me in the head, kicking me in the back or just choking me until I screamed. They just couldn't deal with me, they didn’t know who I was. I belonged to nothing. I tried running away from home a few times but that didn’t help. I pleaded to my parents to help me and take me out of school. They made an appointment with the principal to discuss the bullying. They tried but I knew things would get worse because of that and they did. 

When I began high school I was extremely nervous. I knew it was going to be hell. It was 1979 and I had already dreamed of revenge and would often cry alone in my room. I often thought of showing up at class with a gun and shooting them at their desks. One day, the biggest guy on the football team followed me into the bathroom with a group of about 5-7 other boys. I can only see his face all the rest were a group of blurry laughing faces. He commented on my new white sneakers and peed on them right in front of everyone. I was devastated that was worse than the actual beatings. I didn’t know what to do.

Not long after that horrible episode, I went to a movie with a few friends. Some older guy recommended we see this movie called Game of Death, starring Bruce Lee. I had never heard of Bruce Lee prior to that and I had totally forgotten about Caine. I remember sitting in the theater and being totally amazed at how the 5' 7" Bruce Lee knocked down the 7' 2 Kareem Abdul Jabbar with a flying side kick, and by the blinding speed of his nunchakus in his fight against Dan Inosanto, a filipino martial artist. To say that my mind was blown was an understatement. I went home and broke apart a wooden red chair in my bedroom to make the red nunchakus Bruce wielded. I began twirling them and knocking my head multiple times because of my poor understanding of the proper knots to make them fly smoothly. 

With a whole football team against me, my father withdrawn into a pot smoking zombie and nothing to belong to martial arts rescued me. Thinking back I have to say that making those red nunchakus was my first step onto the martial path. 

It is now 2015 and although it is technically true that I have never stopped practicing martial arts, I have to also admit that I wandered off the true path often and I still struggle to stay on the path. My father is a bitter old man who still smokes pot everyday. David Carradine died in 2009 from some weird sexual fetish and here I am struggling to keep true to the path. Still not belonging to anything but martial arts. Martial arts truly saved me multiple times from those stupid bullies in middle and high school, some angry people on the street and most of all from myself. My own self destructive behaviors often got the better of me. 

We are all fallen idols in some way. One by one from my father to Carradine to Bruce Lee they have all fallen. It is a difficult thing to grasp because we want something pure and unadulterated to give us hope. Unfortunately, time and time again we see our heroes fail and we see ourselves fail. I have failed so many times and I still fail but I have learned to accept that it is part of the process. 

The most important advice I can give to someone is that they will inevitably fail, and their idols will fail but despite that heartbreaking reality they must get back on the path.  

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Dealing with Life’s Transitions

Last Sunday, I attended a Unitarian Universalist (UU) service. Although I do not attend as often as I would like, when I do attend I always find that a veil is lifted on some issue that I have unconsciously buried deep within myself. 

In the UU congregation of Oxford, Mississippi, there is no “preacher” who expounds for an hour on some moral or social issue and expects no exchange of ideas. The Oxford congregation leaders usually find someone who has something meaningful to share. This Sunday did not dissappoint. The speaker was a recent Ph.D graduate and long time UU member who took a position at a University in South Africa. Accordingly, his talk was about transitions. He spoke eloquently about his long fear of change and how his coming major life transition is probably similar to many of the member's experiences, and after his talk he opened up the floor for others to offer words of wisdom. Many hands went up and there were great thoughts, and moving experiences that ranged from death of a loved one to job change to people who love change. I left with a flood of life affirming thoughts. 

Later that day, I reflected on the suggestions and realized that many people suggested that having some kind of an anchor was extremely beneficial to ease the discomfort of entering a new stage of life. At the time the anchor wasn’t the one that stood out, but as I ruminated the idea of an anchor started to resonate more and more. Then I realized that I indeed have an anchor myself and didn’t even realize it. 

My anchor is a sacred space. Since I was young and being bullied at school (sorry for the cliche but it is the truth) I started taking karate and I found this outdoor space to practice. It had a concrete bench with a tree attached and if you looked at it in the right light you could transport yourself to a tranquil asian garden. I would come home after school, run and change my clothes and start training. That was one of the few places I felt safe! 

Many years later as an adult, I moved to Mississippi, which was pretty hard on me, not because I was being bullied but because it is just about as different a place as an Italian-American from Brooklyn could live. So when visiting my wife’s family I felt really alone and separate. Something inside me beckoned me in to the woods. I instinctively found a spot and began to practice Tai chi. Over time, I changed the landscape a bit to facilitate my practice, and voila, a sacred space was born. 

Then Hurricane Katrina wiped it out and I thought it was lost and my practice was scattered throughout other parts of the land but settling no where. During Easter weekend I cut a path deep into the pine forest and found the spot where my wife’s great grandparents built their first house (pictured). I was going to do an archaeological dig to find farm tools from the 1800s. 

After clearing a 20’ x 30’ patch of land and prepping for the dig I realized that there was something deeper than archaeology calling me. I dropped my tools and started doing Tai chi. Instantly, I felt at home. I returned at 6 am to celebrate Easter sunrise to consecrate the new space. Now that I had a sacred space again, I realized that it is not just about the space but it is actually a vessel that allows me to fill it with sacred movements. Those ancient footsteps that were passed down from generation to generation of scared and vulnerable people, who knew how to adapt to scary places. Thousands of years later their calming messages still soothe my soul wherever I go.

The funny thing is that I never really acknowledged that my sacred space was an anchor, or more accurately, a coping mechanism for stressful places and times. I always knew I loved the woods and doing Tai chi in the woods was for me its highest expression and I even considered my practice sacred but I never completed the circle until those wise people at the UU congregation led me there.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

New Definition For Tai Chi

Tai chi originated in China as a martial art before written history. It is usually described as a mind-body practice that is sometimes referred to as "moving meditation.” Many people say "dance-like" when describing it. In fact, whenever I describe Tai chi and use one of these popular descriptions I inevitably feel that I am doing an injustice to the creators of Tai chi. 

Legend has it that the creator of Tai chi, was a Taoist monk called, Chan San Feng. He developed a set of 13 exercises that mimicked animals movements and focused on the cultivation of internal energy, often referred to as "Chi," or "Qi," as opposed to brute strength. According to the legend, Tai chi came to him upon watching an eagle attack a snake. He noticed the snake was coiled and evaded the eagle with an elusive soft power, nothing like the muscular force that the eagle used to attack. Frustrated, the eagle left and from that encounter we have a series of movements and postures that have taught millions around the world that soft power, not brute force, can bring one many benefits.  

In 2007, a national survey, found that 2.3 million U.S. adults practiced Tai chi in the past 12 months. One Google search on "how to become certified as a Tai chi instructor?" yielded 490,000 results. The average cost was around $500 to become a Tai chi instructor through an online course and certification. Other organizations require one to attend workshops with many different levels from beginner to advanced. This will cost quite a bit more, especially adding in flights and lodging. To be sure each credentialing body has their own unique spin on the definition of Tai chi.

There are many definitions of Tai chi out there. Below are the most commonly found in the academic literature. 

Common definitions of Tai chi: 



I have found over the years of my own practice and teaching others, especially older adults that the above definitions are incomplete. 

My definition of Tai chi: 

Tai chi is a method of training that was developed thousands of years ago by people who understood how humans fit into their environment. Its main focus is training the body and mind to coordinate, integrate, and synchronize the timing and intensity of body parts to move in unison with a high level of attention paid to gravity and other environmental influences to achieve the highest out put of energy with the least input.  

Why propose a new definition?

For me the answer to this question lies in my years of studying the Yang Style Secret Family Transmissions complied by Douglas Wile. I have owned that book for 17 years and often refer to it as a reference. There are many passages I could quote but the two that really inspired me to seek a new definition of Tai Chi are The Meaning of The Civil and The Martial in T’ai Chi, and The treatise on Before and After Acquiring the Ability to Interpret Energy in T’ai Chi

These two passages explain why Tai Chi holds the place in our society that has been deemed by health professional as an excellent exercise for older adults. It shows that ancient Tai chi practitioners really did understood that aging is imminent and that perfecting biomechanics, and many bodily processes, like kinesthetic senses, breath, internal awareness are essential functions of Tai chi. Those sections also point out that just focusing on the martial aspects or winning fights would be short lived. The earlier definitions speak nothing of the deep internal work and prescient awareness that these masters had of the body. I hope mine offers more of a nod to the early creators of Tai chi.