Fear and balance and kiai

Let’s start with a short anecdote about synchronicity. The other day I went to the Yashow Market on Gongti Beilu. This used to be one of the main places for selling fake designer clothing, although the lawyers have pretty much shut that down; these days, its focus is on cheap clothes, silks, and tailoring. I was there for the latter. I spent some time going around the various tailors, looking for materials and good prices. Eventually I found somewhere I was happy with, and started negotiating a price for a package of suits and jackets. I got offered a price that I actually thought was pretty reasonable – and yet, there’s always the suspicion that as a foreigner you’re paying over the odds. I found myself wishing that I’d brought a Chinese friend along; in fact, I was thinking of a friend and ex-colleague who now lives in Singapore, but who was always a great fixer and excellent at getting the best price.

Imagine my surprise when, as I stood there mulling over the price on offer, that same friend walked into the tailor shop! I didn’t know she was coming back to Beijing for a couple of weeks; she thought I had already left (when we last spoke, I was planning to leave mid-September on the Trans-Siberian railway, but my illness and reports of radioactive smoke changed all that). She had come to buy shirts for her husband, and apparently has used this tailor for years, though I never knew that. But what are the odds of her walking into that tailor’s, just at the moment that I was wishing she was there? (The price I’d been given turned out to be a pretty good one, although she advised me to press for a couple of shirts to be thrown in as well).

Heh. Well, on to other matters. I was cycling home last night, approaching a T-junction, where I needed to make a right turn (we drive on the right in China, if you don’t know). As I approached the corner, a car came around it – not just on my side of the road, but actually in the cycle lane. There wasn’t enough space left to swing out around it, and my brakes are fairly soft (even though it’s a brand new bike, long story). This is it, I thought, this bastard’s going to hit me straight on. I was saved because the driver stopped abruptly; not to avoid hitting me – I don’t think he’d even noticed me – but because he was parking. (Beijing drivers consider “cycle lane” to be a synonym for “free parking”). This left me enough space to get around him, though even so I scraped along the side of the car. Of course, I was terrified, which rapidly turned to anger. This morning when I woke up, I was still furious, and even now I still have a tension in my chest and jaw. I mention this because it demonstrates vividly the principle I learned from the meditation retreats I’ve been on – strong emotions have physical symptoms; these symptoms are stored in the body even after the conscious mind has moved on. They accumulate, and influence our future behaviour unconsciously. Meditation can clear them out, though… I do need to get a meditation routine settled after I get back to Wales…

Autumn is arriving in Beijing, and the last few days have brought cool weather and rain. The latter seems to have made the pedestrians even less aware of their surroundings.. I was cycling up to the university and on one trip two separate people stepped out into the cycle lane right in front of me, without looking first. Because of the weather I was wearing a rain cape, which completely muffles my bell. Instead, I had to shout, a wordless ‘hoy’ of warning. For whatever reason, these were perfect, coming directly from the dantian, and setting the whole ribcage vibrating. On both occasions, the pedestrian stopped dead, and a collision was avoided. What I found interesting was the difference between the kiai and the bell. I think I’ve mentioned previously that because this situation happens so often, I bought a very loud bell. When I ring it to alert a pedestrian that they’ve just walked in front of a fast-moving bicycle, it clearly focuses their attention; they look around rapidly and step back out of the way. The kiai, in contrast, seems to stun them – both of the guys who stepped in front of my simply froze; their eyes went out of focus, and they didn’t turn their heads as I went around them. There must be a reason for this, but I don’t know it.

(I realize that this is a lot of bicycle stories for one post! In case you are wondering, it’s not just me – I’ve compared notes with a lot of other cyclists, and each of us has a fund of horror stories about cars and pedestrians….)

Because of the weather, I wore my cowboy boots for the first time since the spring. I’ve been wearing Vibram Five Fingers shoes pretty much exclusively all summer, and I’ve gotten very used to that ‘natural’ walking posture. Putting on the boots, I really had difficulty adapting back to the posture needed to walk with heels. It’s the same when I wear ‘normal’ trainers as well. I feel really unstable and off-balance. It’s very disconcerting, and makes me conscious of how un-natural everyday shoes are….

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