Going Slow to Flow

The other day my calligraphy teacher took me to her teachers class room for my lesson.  While I was painting he quietly commented to her in Chinese that I was painting too fast.

Initially I resented his observation but kept it to myself. After class I thought about what he said. I also thought about how I’d been doing Tai Ji recently; very slow, very focused, pausing at points to feel my center and my connection with the earth, checking to see how they were aligned, taking the time to organize my whole body in whatever posture or action I was in at the time. Then thinking back to before that calligraphy class, I’d been a bit put out by a girl I thought had given me a P.T.A.

(“Permission To Approach…” It’s actually  a reference to a line from an Iain M. Banks novel called “Matter”, where a ship’s Avatar uses a signal laser in his eye to signal to another culture agent requesting permission to open communications. A very cool book though a little sad at the end as most of his books can be but none the less they have some sort of meatiness that is really nice to sink your teeth into. One thing, take the time to read them slowly. You need to read his books slowly, especially near the end, to allow his text to sink in. The easy tendency is to read too fast and then you miss it.)

I thought she’d given me an indication of interest and perhaps even an invitation but then she seemingly blew me off, or I was just being too sensitive.

Anyway, I was in a mood while painting and was trying to hide from it by painting fast, and without feeling.

There are times when I can paint fast and with feeling. This wasn’t one of them. I was painting fast but not feeling the brush and not focusing on what I was doing.

Moving slowly we have to notice what we are doing and what we are working with. In the case of using a brush I could focus on feeling each brush stroke from start to finish and also on feeling where to place each subsequent brush stroke.Moving slowly, painting slowly, it is easy to make our body and mind act like one so that our body does exactly what our mind asks it to and our mind can sense exactly what our body can do.

Moving slowly we move out of our head and into the world around us. We use our senses and as a result are no longer thinking. It’s a good way of forgetting about the things that bother us. And if we are having difficulty using our senses or controlling what we are doing, like when cleaning we can focus on little bits at a time, and repeat those little bits until we get it right-like vacuuming the same piece of run over and over again to get that one annoying piece of lint…
We just may find that in the process we get into a sort of flow. The we know we are present in what we are trying to do.

Clean As You Go-A Guide to Entering the Flow

Have you even been in a forward bend (while doing yoga), and all of a sudden you notice your toes and how dirty they are, or your toes nails need clipping, a scab needs picking or other such thing.

Doing yoga we tend to notice our body. We give ourselves the time to notice what we don’t normally look at and as a result we see the parts of ourselves that are less than clean from neglect.

Noticing our body, we notice what needs to be cleaned. While cleaning, to do a good job we notice what we are cleaning.

In either case, doing yoga or clearing, we can become present, even if a little distracted.

As an example, while sweeping the floor we notice where the dust has gathered in the corners or on the edges of quarter board. We notice crumbs under the couch, the discarded pizza way too old to nibble on, a ten dollar note (not quite enough for a movie,) those missing socks and someone else’s mouldy underwear-also not good to nibble on. Cleaning the car, a motorbike or piece of machinery that we use for pleasure or for work of for both we may notice lose nuts or bolts or pieces missing or parts in need of adjustment or refurbishing or replacing.

Noticing these things we can take care of them. As such we can keep what we are working with in good working condition and we can fix things before things get bad and we can use it as a way of keeping things from getting bad because we can see when things are about to go wrong.

(If we take the time to remove that pizza crust before it goes mouldy we prevent the onset of a bad smell.)

Sweep Away Yesterdays Problems

One of my inspirations for this article was an article by a sword smith who talks about cleaning the shop every morning. He mentions that it is a way of sweeping up the problems of yesterday so that we can deal with the problems of today. It inspired me to start cleaning more regularly and to make it a part of my morning routine.

To make cleaning simpler, I like the idea of cleaning regularly. Rather than one big round of cleaning I do little bits at a time. One day I’ll do the living room, the next day the bedroom and so on.

On the other end of the spectrum we can leave cleaning as a once a month, bi-yearly or yearly project where we put everything else aside to get on with the task of cleaning, reorganizing or improving. If we do this, one of the ways that we can make this job easier is to work as neatly and as organized as possible when we are not cleaning so that we save ourselves the task of having to sort everything out.

As an example, here in Taiwan we can keep our receipts from any sales transaction and every two months check the receipt numbers to see if we’ve won the lottery. (It’s a way that the government encourages shop owners to record transactions.)

Over the course of two or three months you can collect a lot of receipts and if you  just bung them in a pile its a real pain in the ass to organize them and then check the numbers. Easier to bundle them as we get them so that we can check them quickly, pick up any winnings (damn it nothing this month, why do I bother..) and get on with our life.

When we don’t clean regularly, or worse yet, if we don’t keep things organized or sorted then when it does come time to clean our work load is increased. Not only do we have to clean, we have to sort as well.

At one time my job was washing dishes at a restaurant. Helping one of the waiters set up some tables for a few extra dollars near the end of the night I neglected my work station. The dishes piled up haphazardly into one huge disorganized pile. I spent the next few hours sorting through and then washing and drying and putting away. I think I got home at 4am that morning.

Having learned my lesson, I applied it cleaning up tables after a wedding at a banquet hall. I suggested that one group of people going around sorting everything on the tables in like groups. Other people could go around with buckets collecting only like objects, only water glasses, only wine glasses, only cutlery etc. Everything was sorted as it was collected and this made it easier for the person loading and operating the dish washer to load everything and put it away.

This is not to say that pre-organizing is needed in every case, but where it can save time in the long run it is a worthwhile endeavor. Doing laundry, I find it more convenient to sort everything as I fold and put it all away-which just might account for my white shirts which are slightly pink.

Organizing Equals Thinking

The beauty about organizing as early as possible or reducing the need for organizing, is that then we don’t have to think. Organization, sorting things out takes thinking power and if we get that out of the way then we can more easily focus on using our senses and focusing on what we want to do.

And that is part of the beauty of cleaning as we go. If we clean after each little job there is little or no organizing to do. The thinking effort required is minimal. Better yet, because we haven’t got so much to cleaning to do we avoid thoughts of “I’ve got so much cleaning to do, I’ll never get this done, I don’t have enough time.” Instead there can be the simple use of our consciousness to sense what we are doing and responding to what we sense. We keep things simple and as a result we can flow.

Taking a cooking class, whether cutting onions, cutting carrots, cutting meat, after each stage we tidy up the scraps, put away what we’d done or at least put it out of the way, and then get on with the next task. Likewise, while cooking we cleaned up at any opportunity.

While initially I thought this was a pain in the ass, working in this way had a pleasant rhythm and the added benefit was that there wasn’t a whole lot of cleaning to do at the end.

Regular Cleaning Equals Rhythm

Cleaning, organizing, writing, doing all of these things at regular intervals, taking a break to stake stock and organize, we can make our lives easier and give our lives rhythm. Instead of thinking about all the stuff we have to do, we can focus on doing, taking a rest, taking stock while we sort, clean and organize and then we get on with whatever is next on our list.

Say what we are learning a new Tai Ji form or a yoga pose or a math technique. If after we try or practice or learn, we can look back at what we’ve done by checking the answer in the back of the book, looking at the example or video, we can then see if what we did matched what we were supposed to be doing. We can also ask the teacher. In this way we learn faster… faster than say trying to practice a very long sequence and then try to remember what we did and then try to check if we did it right.

That’s not to say that thinking doesn’t have its place. When learning, trying to understand, trying to figure things out, then thinking can be useful. Actually where it is most useful is in figuring out how to simplify. Once we’ve simplified we can then focus on doing. Then we don’t have to think.

When we aren’t thinking we can focus on what we are doing and sensing and as a result we become present. We flow.

Why Get into the Flow?

Why get into the flow?

Because it feels good. It’s like doing a forward bend and because your feet are clean you can focus on feeling your hips and using them, on feeling your spine and lengthening it, on doing a yoga pose with effortless ease.

Be Water, Be Like Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee says “be like water.” How can we be like water? Water is soft and fluid so that when poured into a cup, bottle, teapot or other container it adapts itself to the shape of the container. An important question to ask is why does it do this. Because of gravity. Water flows because gravity pulls it and because it is soft and relaxed.
How can we become like water, by relaxing. By feeling the weight of our bones and letting them sink down.

It’s been a Bruce Lee week. A few days ago I was in a martial arts class and someone said that Bruce Lee was born in America. An argument ensued and afterwards a friend found on the net that Bruce had indeed been born in America.
Later this same week Leo Babauta posts an article about Bruce Lee on his web site. (actually its a guest post by a Jonathan Mead)
That same day I take my bike to the shop to get the chain replaced. When I return to pick up my bike a friend is there playing on the computer. He is watching a YouTube video of Bruce Lee playing ping pong with nunchucks. Apparently it may not be real but still would I be surprised if he really could have played ping pong with a set of nunchucks?

It was incredible to watch and it might beg the question how did he do it. Obviously practice is a huge component of how he did what he did but I believe that a larger part is due to him being able to sense his body so that he could relax it. The same awareness that he applied to being able to sense his body he could then apply when encountering things outside of his body. Sensing his body and relaxing it and then sensing the motion of a ping pong ball he could respond in such a way that he could return the ball to the person he is playing.
Of course he didn’t just sense the ball and his body (and perhaps the intent of the person hitting the ball) but he also sensed the weapon he was using, the nun chucks. Sensing all of these things and keeping his body as relaxed as possible he could respond in any way he chose.

The subject of this post occurred to me this morning after I had just finished a very good Tai Ji practice. I realized that the practice had been one of my better ones because I had been so relaxed.
How did I know the practice was a good one? Because of the way I felt afterwards and even during the practice. The movements felt easy, light and effortless and all the parts of my body felt unified as if they were working together towards a shared goal. Afterwards I simply felt good, energized, happy.
How did I relax? By feeling my body. For me that means feeling the weight of my bones being pulled down by gravity. It also means lifting my arms or my legs with the absolute minimum amount of effort necessary to do what I am trying to do. Moving slowly while doing Tai Ji it is pretty easy then to sense tension and let it go.
It’s as if I am a marrionet with each piece of my body hanging down from a string but the puppet master is so good that there is just a little bit of tension at each of my joints so that rather than loosely connected bits of wood bouncing around my body is one connected whole moving smoothly from one position to the other.
Doing tai ji, the more I relax the more I feel tense spots and more I can let go. And while I might practice moving slowly I feel like I can keep the same relaxed awareness and ability to respond when I move faster. It’s like I’m riding my body like a wave and my body flows smoothly from one pose to another.
How do I flow, by staying relaxed and feeling my body and responding to what I sense.

Sensing tension I respond to what I sense by either relaxing the muscle that is tense or my repositioning my body as necessary so that it can relax. Sensing our body as well as what is outside of our body we can do something similar, we can respond to what we sense by moving our body based on the idea of what we are trying to do. Using nun chucks to hit back a ping pong ball, sensing our body and where the ping pong is going to be, we can respond to what we sense by moving our body in such a way that we cause the end of our nun chuck to co-locate with the ping pong ball, hitting it back where we want it to go.

Doing yoga, doing Tai Ji, doing weight lifting, running, body weight exercises, the more we sense our body the better we can respond to what we sense and the better we can do what we are trying to do. It’s as if the thing we are doing is the shape of a glass and we become water by flowing into the shape of what we are doing.