Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Objectifing the subjective

Went to a talk on Magick and Psychogeography at Treadwells the other Friday and as usual a lot on interesting stuff was brought up which left me much to mull over. The speaker, Julian Vayne a Chaos Magician and member of the I.O.T, outlined how he used Psychogeographical techniques as a way of expanding his magickal practice into his surrounding environment. He gave accounts of several rituals he'd engaged in that used the landscape as an active participant in both a structured and freeform manner.

In one instance he gave an account of a group working that involved taking a 20/30 people on a guided tour of Bath following a specific route and intent. This mobile ritual involved performing certain actions at designated stations (for instance speaking glossolia into mobile phones) and culminated in the whole group running back to the starting point of the tour singing 'row, row, row your boat' as a mantra. As a contrast he explained of another working which involved an ambling walk along a path performing whatever ritual, exercise or invocation felt right at that time and location.

His ideas struck me as very similar to the Shamanic workshop I'd attended a few weeks previous where we were encouraged to form a dialogue with aspects of the environment (in this case trees). These ways of working both seem to encourage the intermingling our subjective and objective experiences into a personal narrative structure, one that's ripe with symbolic meaning but anchored in the physical plane.

The other thing that seems common here is that both view our interaction with the world as two way conversation. We write meaning into our surroundings (many have written of how our world is perceived through a veil of own our preconceptions and maps) but our surroundings also write back to us. Whether this be the position of heavenly bodies for navigation, droppings indicating the location of the hunted or the overt manipulation of advertising symbols. The world is always talking to us and we are always listening, it's just most of the time the conversation takes place below the level of conscious thought. However by beginning to pay attention to this subtle interplay between us and our environment I think it's possible to make process overt, if we cut our internalized mental chatter and turn our consciousness outwards, we can become more aware of the messages we are receiving and use them to develop our own methods for communication.

This idea of layers of meaning in our surroundings, subtle architecture of imagination, appears to be especially poignant in the man made structure of cities. Think about it, cities are the product of our hands and minds, the subjective made objective. They are human imagination ossified into brick, stone, concrete and glass. Walking through a city (especially one as ancient as London) is like walking through the collective unconsciousness of the culture that created it.

It reminds me again of Susan Greenwood's explanation of the 'Web of Wyrd' in her book 'The Nature of Magic' we are each part of an interconnected whole, a matrix of overlapping stories each making up a grand narrative. Normally we're so caught up in our own little soap opera's we don't notice our interaction with the wider story of existence, the act of magic then could be seen as recognizing our part in the story and becoming an active in it's creation as opposed to just a mere jobbing actor, tiredly repeating someone else's lines.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Search and Destroy

Last month my long time Tai-Chi teacher Nigel Sutton was over in England on one periodic visits from Malaysia, where he's been living for twenty odd years now studying marital arts full time.

Nigel's main art is Tai-Chi, but he has trained in various Chinese Kung-Fu systems (internal and external) as well as holding teaching qualifications in several indigenous Malaysian Silat styles. So yeah he's pretty good and his visits always leave my brain (and body) hurting.

This visit we spent a lot of time going over Tai-Chi's fighting aspects. Tai-Chi can be an enigma to a lot of westerners, when it first appeared in the west it was touted as an alternative health method and it's martial origin's were often either downplayed or ignored. The most common reaction to Tai-Chi when first encountered is 'it's just moving slowly and poncy arm waving isn't it?' (amusingly this confusion is non-existent outside of Europe and the United States).

It's true that taken at face value the slow movements of The Form (which are the core movements of Tai-Chi and what most equate with the whole art) do not seem martial in the slightest, but by actually practicing the moves and understanding the underlying mechanisms one can see what is actually happening.

Tai-Chi is
primarily a principle based art, there is a great saying (which I can't for the life of me remember where it's from) 'Teach a man a technique and he has one technique, teach a man a principle and he has a thousand techniques'. The Form first and foremost teaches correct posture and efficient movement, these are the cornerstones of Tai-Chi and everything else is built on them.

This brings me back nicely to the stuff that Nigel was playing with this time around. Tai-Chi is a close range art, it's strengths come from short range attacks, relaxed strength and heightened sensitivity to an opponents movements. Combined these are ideally used to over-power the attacker by gaining control of the their centre of balance and turning any energy used against them. With this in mind Nigel has come up with 5 points that break down how Tai-Chi works in a combat situation.

  1. Cover the distance - the most dangerous point, the practitioner has move in past the opponents weapon's (fists, feet, whatever) into a comfortable fighting range.
  2. Control - once you're within range you then have to close down the opponent's options using ting-jing to take control of the their centre of gravity. Ting-jing can be roughly translated as listening energy, it's a skill trained within Tai-Chi where you become fine tuned to a persons balance and movement so you can 'stick' and follow them.
  3. Unbalance - once you have control of their centre you can then take them off balance, both physically and mentally (often just the act of getting into someone's space is enough to unbalance them mentally). This can be in the form of a lock, a throw or a strike.
  4. pressurize - now you have them at a disadvantage, you keep them there. Using your control of their centre and strikes/locks/throws you prevent them being able to gather their wits and re-gain control of the situation.
  5. Destroy - the obvious, once you have them off balance and confused, you end the situation decisively and generally nastliy. Yes this isn't very pleasent but then again violence of any kind seldom is.
The important thing to remember here is that once you get into range and gain control, you keep it. Not allowing your opponent to regain their composure or balance.

Another thing that Nigel brought up that is worth expanding on here is the that 'the best arts are reactive and not active'. This is one of those sayings that seems quite basic on the surface but holds a lot of meaning.

If you instigate an attack then there is a conscious decision to make that attack, even if this is just a flicker on across the brain, there is still a lag between thinking of making a move and actually making it. However if you react, simply by instinct, then there is no conscious process so therefore no lag time, this method is summed up in the Tai-Chi classics as 'he moves first, I arrive first'.

Obviously you want to make sure that whatever your action is it's one relevant to the situation, this is where endless hours of repetitive training comes in. By ingraining certain ways of moving into your synapses through training the Form and other exercises, then testing that movement under pressure in push-hands and sparring, you train your body to react instantaneously to an attack without the interruption of conscious thought.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Pakistan maybe a hot-bed of terroist activity

The map may not be the territory

But as maps go this is pretty cool.

I'm just waiting for the patch that lets me hook it into an orbital laser.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

You're a fool if you think it's over

But for the moment it is. After 2 odd years of seemingly endless lost weekends and evenings with my head buried in books (OK no change there), or writing essays, or designing lesson plans, or drawing stick men in anatomically questionable positions. After countless bizarre and meaningful conversations regarding the nature of existence, the meaning of the Self and how the fuck do you explain it all in less than 2000 words. After countless hours of driving to and from Wales and spending many weekends half way up a mountain (OK a very big hill, but mountain sounds better) locked in a farm house debating, writing and bending with some very lovely people. It is finally over, I am now a fully paid up member of the Yogi squad, a British Wheel of Yoga qualified teacher.

With my new teacher status I'm able to levitate at will, wear a loin cloth in public without fear of arrest and my countless disciples must throw rose petals before me wherever I go (well OK the levitation may need some work and I need to get some disciples before I start handing out the rose petals, but if the weather's good this weekend I might try the loincloth).

So after all that was it worth it? Well at the risk of sounding like I've escaped from 'Team America', Fuck yeah! People tell you at the beginning that it is a life changing experience and to be perfectly honest I didn't believe them, it's just a course right? You do a few essays and get a bit of paper at the end and that's it. Well now I'm here and looking back I can see they were totally right.

Hand on heart this has been probably one of the best experiences of my life. It's altered and widened my view of Yoga and what it is, made me question and re-evaluate my reasons for teaching, made me realise that I was stuck in a self destructive pattern at work and caused me to totally change my job, it has inspired me to start writing again, rekindled my interest in all things esoteric and (last but by no means least) it has introduced me to a group of the most interesting, inspiring, diverse and truly lovely people I've ever had the pleasure to meet. What more could you want?

Right I'd best stop now before I go all misty eyed and the audience starts to vomit, I'm going to go and sit on my laurels for a bit and think about what I can do with my new found teacher status (I get a card and everything, I'm looking forward to waving it at people and shouting 'Yoga teacher, get down on the floor and relax!'). Hmmm the possibilities are endless, you know I've always fancied myself as a cult leader. White robes never go out of fashion and it'd be handy having all those disciples to do the washing up (and the rose petals, mustn't forget the rose petals).....

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

V for vendetta

Shock! Horror! Stop the press! Can it be? An adaptation of an Alan Moore work that doesn't suck?

Well if the new V for Vendetta trailer is anything to go by the Wachowski Brothers may have finally pulled their heads out of their arses after disappearing there in The Matrix 2 and produced something that's worth watching.

Of course it's only a trailer and there's still time for them to jump the story in a dark alley and stab it in the back, leaving it to bleed to death in the box office gutter. But I live in hope.

Tree Hugger

I had a very interesting couple of days this weekend. Spent most of it down on the coast near Brighton, firstly on a workshop with Susan Greenwood and Jo Crow learning techniques of shamanism. Then on Sunday training with my long time teacher, Tai-Chi master and general martial arts aficionado Nigel Sutton who's over on one of his periodic visits from Malaysia.

This post will deal mainly with my experiences of the Saturday shamanism workshop, I'm going to do a separate post on the stuff Nigel's been teaching as there's a lot to go through.

The workshop was held in a Yurt (or possibly a Gurt, but I'm not too up on the stylistic differences) in some woods around Brighton. It was themed around trees, their place within an animistic worldview and the practical aspects of opening lines of communication.

The course was implicitly a practical one, with philosophical discourse kept to a minimum. We were given the opportunity to take take various 'journeys' and then encouraged to discuss our experiences on our return. There were six others on the course with me but I'm going to stick with my own journeys here, one because they are easier to recollect and two I don't know if the others would want their own stories published in the public domain.

The first exercise involved going out into the surrounding woods and finding your own tree to commune with. After leading us through a very lovely preparatory meditation and shifting our perceptions into a more open state via the use of a rattle we were all sent outside to find a tree.

As I left the cosy confines of the Yurt, after this period of meditation and opening up, I found my senses were suddenly much more alive to the increased sensory input. The colours and sounds were more 'there' as if someone had just cleaned glasses you hadn't realised had become fogged.

Walking away from the immediate surrounds of the Yurt I began to walk down a nearby path, but after walking a few yards I found that I kept thinking of a particular clearing right back where I had started. So, deciding to pay attention to my gut feeling, I turned around and came back.

As soon as I came back to the clearing I noticed a particular tree. It had been partially uprooted in a storm and the first part of it's trunk was almost horizontal to the ground, then it bent sharply upwards and shot into the canopy obviously grasping for he light. I figured this tree looked like it had a story to tell so I decided to stay with it.

Standing by the tree, I tried to keep my senses open and tune into it's presence. We had all been given a rattle to use on our walk and I used this intermittently to keep myself in a slightly altered state (not having used rattles before, I was surprised to find it rattling seemingly of it's own accord whenever I needed it). I spent a bit of time with the tree, observing and placing my hands on it, there was no sense of actual verbal communication but a definite feeling of connection.

Coming back to the Yurt we all lay on the floor and commenced journeying, with Jo pounding a beat on a circular drum I lay there and tried to ride the rhythm to somewhere else.

I wasn't holding much hope of anything actually occurring as normally when I lie down to relax in a yoga class I invariably nod off. However after a couple of false starts and a few thoughts of 'nope, this isn't working' I found my mind being drawn to the image of the tree I'd just spent time with. Holding the image of the tree in my minds eye, with the second heart beat of the drum pulsing through the tent, I suddenly found that I'd been joined by a woman dressed in green robes (it was very much a 'Mr Ben' moment, as if by magic a woman in green appeared). She sat on a bench by the tree her face covered with a hood, turning her head and standing she drew back the hood to revel a distinguished and handsome face with green hair and eyes.

Now I was quite surprised by this, I hadn't forced this to happen and none of the previous conversation of the day had laid any seeds of this nature within my mind. We stood by each other, as earlier no real verbal communication took place (though she did tell me she was a Dryad and gave me her name) but I felt comfortable with her there. At one point she hugged me and I felt that I became suddenly much more grounded like a tree and at another I felt the need to cough but placed her fingers on my throat and the need went away. Then the rhythm of the drum changed and I was being called back to the tent, I said my good byes and returned to the Yurt.

After a discussion of our experiences and some lunch we proceeded on to work with some other aspects of trees, this time the concepts of the underworld and the upper-world common in so many mythologies.

We each chose a part of a tree. Half the objects were tree roots while the other half were aspects of it's canopy such as branches, leaves or berries. I began with a tree root, one that I felt was suitably wand like, and I lay on the floor with it clutched across my breast. As this was straight after lunch I found that my attention kept drifting to the edges of sleep and a clear vision was difficult to maintain, however I did find a continuing theme that kept reoccurring as I lay in the shallows of sleep.

First It felt as though the root began to grow in my hand and wrap it's tendrils around my body in a cocoon. Thus mummified I was drawn into the earth where I lay, the sound of drumming echoing through the earth. As I looked up I could see a large tree growing from the centre of my chest it's branches reaching far above me.

After we were called back from the journey we were then asked to stand up and, keeping the feeling of the vision, see if we could translate the feelings into a dance. As Jo and Susan beat a vigorous rhythm we tried to join with the drum beat and allow it to find it's expression.

I'll admit I found this bit difficult and couldn't find myself getting into the rhythm. I wasn't feeling particularly self conscious but maybe there was a part of me that was reluctant to let myself get into it. Plus I couldn't get the image of Bez from the Happy Mondays out of my head, which was understandably most distracting. Anyway I chalk that one up to experience and it's something I'll have to work with.

For the second journey I chose a small branch with leaves at the end of it, there was no reasoning behind this other than it looked nice. This time I decided to stay sitting upright as I felt I would be able to maintain my concentration better. The drumming began again and I concentrated on the beat filling the Yurt, hearing the subtle song that sits just under the surface of the rhythm. A strange siren harmonic, like an angelic choir hidden in somewhere in the drums skin.

This time my mind settled on the meditation we began the day with, I felt a tree growing outwards from my heart it's roots sitting down in the earth and it's branches reaching for the sky. I stayed with this feeling for a while, feeling the wind through my branches, when I suddenly felt I could reach higher. I felt my tree self expand and my branches reach right up, breaking the surface of the clouds. Looking down my trunk/body I could see the earth far below me and my roots buried in the soil, I realised I'd become the world tree, bridging the three worlds. I kept with this feeling until the drum called me back, shrinking the tree into my chest and back to the Yurt.

Again for the second dance I had much the same problem as before, I think the difficulty is that I'm used to meditating from a static position and I find trying to maintain that state of mind while moving quite challenging.

After these two journeys we sat and discussed what had happened, sharing our individual experiences with the group. I was impressed with Susan and Jo's methodology of letting the journeys talk for themselves, we weren't forced to shoehorn our visions into a particular worldview or symbolic system, rather I believe they wanted us to use them to begin to create our own experiential maps instead of trying to contain them within a formal structure.

Did these experiences have any objective reality outside my own head? Would someone else going to the same tree have the same experience and met the same being? Possibly not, but I think we find the experience we need at the time and dress it in the appropriate clothes.

As to the question of was this all in my head? Well in my own opinion I think consciousness is far more complicated and expansive than a simple lump of tissue carried in evolutions own crash helmet. But even if the whole thing was a product of an overactive imagination, does it matter at the end of the day? Working this way is encouraging us to interact with our environment in a dynamic way, blending the subjective and the objective. To often do we draw a sharp boundary between what is 'out there' and 'in here' when really our lives are constructed on the shore between the two. Instead of sitting behind our eyes and looking out, relying on other peoples maps of reality, we can begin to create our own personnel mythologies, stories and relations with the landscape from direct experience. We are not just talking to the world but also hearing it answer back.

As my first direct experience of shamanism I feel I have come away with a lot of new things to play around with, but also a sense of connection to my own practices. It's nice to do something new and find there is already a lot of common ground, fresh ways of looking at the same thing.