POEM: You’re Killing Me, Ms. Dickinson, or: Samurai Surgery


“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”    – Emily Dickinson

 

It’s mean accuracy and angry power that can cleave the top off a head;
neither merely scalping the reader,
nor decapitating him.

Popping the top to blow the mind is samurai surgery.
Some lines tink against the forehead like a dull knife,
while others — with razor-sharpness — succeed only in shearing an unsightly bald spot.

The fabled Taoist butcher could cleanly slice between the bone ends,
never dulling his cleaver,
but that’s not much help for one seeking to take off the top of a head…

or is it?

BOOK REVIEW: The Path by Michael Puett

The Path: A New Way to Think About EverythingThe Path: A New Way to Think About Everything by Michael Puett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book is organizationally and conceptually similar to a book by Edward Slingerland that I reviewed recently entitled “Trying Not to Try.” I’ll first discuss how the books are alike before differentiating them as I believe they are both worth reading. First, both books essentially look at how the ideas of ancient Chinese philosophers—both Confucian and Taoist—can be put into practice to improve one’s life in the modern world. Second, the heart of each work consists of chapters devoted to the thinking of one particular philosopher and how the ideas of said philosopher compare and contrast to those of the others.

That said, both books create their own space in a way that justifies each’s existence. While Slingerland focuses heavily on the notion of wu-wei (effortless action) and de (the charisma of effortless action,) Puett and Gross-Loh consider a broader swath of human activity. That may make it sound like this book is more rambling and unfocused, but there is a central theme that cuts across the chapters. That theme rejects the simple and straightforward ideas given credence by modern Western society (as well as by the Chinese Mohists–i.e. followers of Mozi.) It suggests that the self is not a fixed entity but rather a collection of patterns. One needs to accept that these are just ruts that can be negated and to behave accordingly if one hopes to achieve an enjoyable life in a world that can be capricious and chaotic.

The first couple chapters of the book look at the problems of the modern world and how ideas from traditional societies—such as the China of past centuries—differed. With that context set, each but the last chapter examines an aspect of the human condition from the perspective of a particular Chinese philosopher.

Chapter three offers Confucius’s ideas about rituals and how they can be used to cultivate virtuous behavior. Chapter four presents the ideas of Mencius with regards how to live life in a world that is capricious and arbitrary.

The fifth chapters shifts from Confucianism to Taoism as it explores Laozi’s ideas about how one can influence others not by brute force but by moving in accordance with “the Way,” and how eliminating illusory distinctions is the key to developing this soft power.

The sixth chapter focuses not on the ideas of a particular author but a particular work, “The Inward Training.” This manual describes how one can increase one’s vitality (readers maybe familiar with the idea of “chi” or “qi,” as in “tai chi” or “qi gong”) by a mystical approach that cultivates the divine within one.

Chapter seven is about Zhuangzi’s ideas about accepting that our world is constantly in flux and to battle this fact is as futile as it is exhausting. The ideas discussed echo the aforementioned concept of “wu-wei” as well as modern concepts of positive psychology such as Czikszentmihalyi’s Flow and ecstasis.

The penultimate chapter returns to a Confucian philosopher, one by the name of Xunzi, who believed that humans create the patterns we live under and it’s up to us to get past said patterns and not to accept them as a given. The last chapter circles back around to propose how the ideas presented throughout the book might allow us to remake the modern world in a happier form.

The book has no graphics, but does have a small section of resources and readings.

I found this book to be enjoyable and informative. The authors use modern stories and cases to make these ideas understandable and relevant to the reader as well as to supplement stories of ancient history. The book provides food for thought and—as I said—it creates its own niche. I’d recommend it for readers interested in how ancient Chinese wisdom can relate to present-day living.

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BOOK REVIEW: Taoist Yoga & Chi Kung by Eric Yudelove

Taoist Yoga and Chi Kung- For good health,better sex,and longer life.Taoist Yoga and Chi Kung- For good health,better sex,and longer life. by Eric Yudelove
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book was originally released under the title: “100 Days to Better Health, Good Sex & Long Life.” It offers a 14 week qi gong practice that proposes to improve health, sex life, and longevity. It’s presented as a step-by-step explanation of the practice aimed at those who intend to carry out the practice—as opposed to those who are looking for a more general explanation or overview.

The book offers a systematic presentation of the 14 week / 100 day practice. It’s divided into two parts. The first is a short explanation of Taoist concepts as they pertain to health building practices, and particular emphasis is given to the concepts of chi (energy / breath), jing (body), and shen (mind.) That emphasis is valuable as each of the chapters (i.e. the description of each week’s practice) is outlined according to these three concepts. So, each week there is a new breath practice, new bodily practices, and a new meditation or visualization practice. That said, these practices build on each other—i.e. starting with very basic activities and either adding to them or shifting to more complex variations.

The sections on breath and mind are fairly straight forward and mostly involve one practice each per week. Those practices become quite complex over the course of the book, but it’s one practice per week. This is in contrast to the middle section that has three or four subsections of activities per week. The middle section on Jing, or body, includes subsections on making sounds, self-massage, “sexual kung fu” (exercises intended to tone the reproductive system and prevent chi “leakage”), and the movement exercises that one might most closely associate with qi gong (chi kung.)

The book has many graphics in the form of line drawings used to clarify anatomy or how one is to visualize the practices. There is a glossary to help explain both Chinese terms and terminology in English that is specific to qi gong. There is also a two page bibliography that includes many works by one of Yudelove’s teachers, Mantak Chia, but also including works by individuals from other lineages and systems.

I have practiced through week eight. One may find the parts of the practice vary in their usefulness, but there doesn’t seem to be any harmful practices and there are many from which one will benefit. I’d recommend the book if one is looking for practices—as opposed to background. The explanations are systematic and the overall practice is well-organized. It’s not the kind of book that is much of a pleasure to read for reading’s sake. Much of the book is lists and bullet points of step-by-step explanation.

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BOOK REVIEW: Trying Not to Try by Edward Slingerland

Trying Not to Try: The Art of Effortlessness and the Power of SpontaneityTrying Not to Try: The Art of Effortlessness and the Power of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book’s paradoxical title is perfect for its paradoxical subject matter, which is famously expressed in such quotes as, “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone” [ver. 48 of the Tao Te Ching.]  Slingerland lays down the ancient Chinese wisdom of wu-wei and de, but provides something novel by putting it in the context of the positive psychology and neuroscience of today. Wu-wei literally means “no doing,” but can be more meaningfully defined as “effortless action.” De (pronounced “duh”) is a charisma seen in people who have mastered the effortlessness and spontaneity of wu-wei.

While the book is built around the varied approaches of four Chinese philosophers—two Confucians (i.e. Confucius and Mencius) and two Taoists (i.e. Laozi and Zhuangzi)—the author relates this philosophy to the present-day thinking found in Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s conception of Flow, and the neuroscience of the subconscious.

The book consists of eight chapters. The introduction and the first two chapters outline the concepts of wu-wei and de using both Chinese and Western stories and examples to help clarify these arcane ideas and put them in the context of the social and spiritual spheres. Chapter 1 offers an extensive discussion of the operation of the brain as it relates to the discussion of effortlessness and spontaneity.

Chapters three through six make up the core of the book, and present the approach and thinking of Confucius, Laozi, Mencius, and Zhuangzi, respectively. This “boy-girl-boy-girl” Confucian-Taoist organization offers the reader sound insight into the varied approaches and allows one to see the evolution of thinking. Confucius gets the first cut, but his approach to effortlessness and spontaneity involves a great deal of effort and planning. It might seem that Laozi’s approach–which does away with effort and planning–might be more apropos, but it’s hard to imagine anything of benefit actually being spawned by such a loosy-goosy approach. The more nuanced approaches of Mencius and Zhuangzi offer additional insight, but do not eliminate the paradox. It’s this paradox that’s the subject of chapter seven.

The final chapter examines what the reader can take away–given that the paradox of wu-wei seems inescapable. The author proposes that, paradox or not, there is value in pursuit of effortlessness and spontaneity, and progress can be made by understanding and accepting said paradox.

The book has no graphics, but is annotated and has a bibliography–as well as an appendix table that summarizes the various approaches to wu-wei.

I enjoyed this book and found it fascinating. It’s highly readable, having humor and a wide range of examples from ancient myths to pop culture. The book offers a great value-added by considering the relevance of modern science and psychology to this ancient concept. I’d highly recommend this for individuals interested in Chinese / Eastern philosophy, as well as anyone hoping to bring a little more effortlessness and spontaneity into his or her life.

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BOOK REVIEW: Tales of the Taoist Immortals by Eva Wong

Tales of the Taoist ImmortalsTales of the Taoist Immortals by Eva Wong
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This book tells of the key events in the lives of forty Taoist immortals. While the title (specifically the word “tales”) might lead one to think that this is a book of stories, it is only so in the most general sense of the word “story.” Satisfying stories show a character confronted by barriers to obtaining some desired goal. That isn’t the case in the overwhelming majority of the “tales” in this book, and the few in which the individual is confronted with a challenge she usually uses her superpowers to magic the problem away. (To be fair, Taoist sages aren’t known for being ambitious and thus have few goals to chase after. There are more examples of individuals turning down high offices in these character sketches than there are characters attempting to obtain some objective.)

If you are looking to learn more about key figures in Chinese history and mythology, this book will serve your purpose through brief (2-3 page) character sketches that hit the highlights. However, if you are looking for something like the “Book of Chuang Tzu” with clever morality tales, that’s not at all what you’ll find in this book. There are a couple of exceptions, but they are rare nuggets.

Each of the 40 chapters provides one character sketch of life events with a brief bio at the end. The 40 chapters are divided into five parts by the class of individual being mentioned (i.e. the eight immortals, sages, magicians, diviners, and alchemists.) There is a line drawing (reminiscent of block print) for each of the chapters that depicts the immortal in action. The only ancillary matter is a brief introduction.

As I suggested, if one is looking for information about the lives of Taoist immortals, one may find this to be a good source—particularly if one doesn’t want to get bogged down in minutiae. The entire book is less than 200 pages. On the other hand, if one is looking for stories or morality tales, one will likely find this book leaves one wanting.

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DAILY PHOTO: Thian Hock Keng

Confucius; Taken on October 29, 2016 in Singapore

Confucius; Taken on October 29, 2016 in Singapore

img_3549img_3548

This Chinese temple sits in the heart of Singapore’s Chinatown. It’s said to be the oldest Hokkien or Hoklo temple (i.e. Han Chinese) in Singapore. It’s a temple related to Han Chinese culture generally, rather than to a particular sect or religion. While the main deity is Mazu (a.k.a. Ma Cho Po,) a maritime goddess from Chinese folklore that is sometimes associated with Taoism, there is also a Confucian shrine as well as homages to several Buddhist Bodhisattvas (a Bodhisattva is one who has achieved enlightenment but sticks around to help others out of compassion.)

Paleo-Stressing: Acute v. Chronic Stress

"What happened to the good ole days when I ate you people--not lived in your cages?"

“What happened to the good ole days when I ate you people–not lived in your cages?”

Paleolithic dieting is all the rage these days. I’m no expert on the paleo-diet, but–as I understand it–this refers to the practice of eating the foods consumed by our pre-agrarian ancestors. The idea is that if one consumes the foods that our species is evolutionarily-optimized to eating, one will be healthier.  Whether one believes in the merits of the paleo-diet or not on the whole, it’s hard to argue that one wouldn’t be better off eating less highly-processed and highly-refined foods and more things that look like food at a glance.

 

Our diet isn’t all that has changed since the days of our pre-agrarian ancestors. Modernity has brought with it an entirely new way of experiencing stress. Eliminating or reducing stress is a common topic of discussion, but not all stress is created equal. There’s a necessary form of stress, a stress that makes one better, stronger, faster, and smarter. We don’t want to willy-nilly eliminate stress; we want to reduce the wrong type of stress.

 

Our ancestors—like animals–experienced brief periods of intense stress (e.g. saber-tooth tiger attacks), followed by longer periods in which they were free of deadlines, carpools, and after-school activities. Now, no one likes to have a saber-tooth tiger stalking them. It’s unpleasant. Modern humanity has gone to great lengths to eliminate those short bursts of terror, but not without cost. (If you don’t believe me read Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.)

 

Whether or not you believe that eliminating acute instances of terrifying stress is bad for mankind, it’s hard to argue that modernity’s leveling process didn’t eliminate stress, but instead resulted in a chronic stress on a smaller scale. People today have impossibly long daily to-do lists, and they have to accept trade-offs between work, family, and personal development.

 

It’s true that you don’t get eaten by a giant cat when you drop the ball, but life is so packed diverse events that one may feel like one is dropping some ball constantly. If your boss thinks you’re a model employee, then your kids are probably going to need therapy. If you have a contented home life, your boss may have his or her eyes open for someone who can give the firm consistently 70+ hour work weeks. If you feel you’re doing alright on both the work and family front, your body and / or mind is probably a train wreck.

 

Chronic [mini] stress may feel better than acute [catastrophic] stress, but it takes its tolls in various ways. First, with our sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight reaction) constantly engaged our body’s power to heal itself is reduced. When the parasympathetic nervous system is engaged, the body devotes resources to long-term goals like getting healthier, but in stress mode activities not relevant to immediate survival shut down. This is a great system if you have periodic life and death stress, but is not so good if you’re under constant stress.

 

Second, chronic stress reduces sleep, and sleep is essential to one’s mental and physical well-being. There are a wide variety of symptoms associated with sleep deprivation such as forgetfulness, decreased concentration, decreased alertness, reduced reasoning ability, diminished problem-solving capacity, and depression—all of which can diminish our physical health through accidents, ailments, suicide attempts, and lack of energy for exercise.

 

Third, chronic stress can make one fat, with all the health issues that result. Some people use food as a coping mechanism. Other people eat too fast or choose their food poorly because of time constraints or because they are not mindful of eating as their monkey minds churn at a mile a minute. Then there is the more convoluted and complex issue of cortisol–a hormone released under stress that is linked to weight gain in at least some cases. Even if you don’t have a problem on the calorie intake side, the stressed individual may not do so well on the calorie burning side—either because of a lack of time to exercise or a lack of energy.

 

Modern humans are uniquely suited to chronic stress because we are the only species that achieves the same physiological stress response by remembering and obsessing about a stressful event as experiencing it. Abandoning the modern approach to living isn’t an option most are willing to entertain; but there are ways to combat chronic stress.

 

Move – Meditate – Mindfully Breath: The bad news is you’ve got to shoehorn these activities into your schedule daily (or at least several times a week.) The good news is that they don’t need to take up a lot of your day. There are a number of systems that address all three components in one handy package such as Qi Gong, Yoga, and some martial arts. I don’t think it matters so much which one chooses as how one goes about one’s practice.

 

Movement strengthens and strategically stresses the body, but it also increases one’s bodily awareness so that one becomes aware of how stress is manifesting itself in one’s body. Meditation teaches one how to live in the present moment, and it trains one to recognize the seeds of negative thought and emotion earlier so that one can counter-act them. Obviously, breathing is essential to life, but learning to be aware of one’s breathing patterns and to “manually override” the breath patterns associated with harmful emotional states is a beneficial skill.

 

Massage / Bodywork: Whether self-administered or other-administered (the latter allowing greater distressing–particularly if the masseuse is skilled) massage is an activity, like movement, that can help one become aware of where one is physically holding one’s stress. These physical manifestations of stress can exacerbate the whole experience of stress. One should take time periodically to have bodywork done. A day rarely goes by in which I don’t work on my own neck, shoulders, head, or face, and I occasionally get professional Thai Yoga Bodywork done.

 

The Places that Scare You: Force yourself to go someplace (not necessarily literally a “place”) that scares you once in a while. This needn’t be skydiving or hand-gliding—but it could be. It may be a martial arts class in which one has to put on the gloves occasionally and go at it. It may be joining Tostmasters and having to give a speech in front of a crowd. It may be traveling to some backwater where you don’t know the language, but you want to learn. This is a very personal issue. (i.e. A Type-A personality he-man may not find that skydiving is outside his comfort zone. If so, sorry, skydiving doesn’t count, he may need to learn ballroom dancing, or something else that truly takes him outside being comfortable.) KEY POINT: The problem with hiding from all stressors is that it doesn’t result in a stress-free life, what happens is that smaller and smaller stressors loom bigger and bigger in one’s mind. Which brings us to…

 

Perspective:  One must put life’s challenges in perspective. Each person’s problems are important to them, and I don’t want to diminish anyone’s problems, but—come on—you’re not going to be eaten by a freaking saber-tooth tiger.