What lies beneath


I’ve been thinking a great deal about filters recently. By “filters”, I mean mental filters: the means by which we exclude information, and limit our understanding of the world.

This has been a really rather fruitful process, and has led to some useful breakthroughs in the spheres I explore in this blog – namely, martial arts, and spiritual development.

A conversation I was having with a colleague recently, the topic of Buddhism, meditation, and mental filters, turned out to have a real impact… on me.

We were discussing Buddhism, and meditation, and I was explaining my understanding of Vipassana meditation. I’ve covered this before in this blog, so I don’t want to repeat myself too much. The short version, therefore, is that Vipassana teaches practitioners to fully inhabit their bodies, rather than diffusing their thoughts and awareness with “what if”, and “if only”. The past cannot be changed; the future will arrive when it’s ready. We have no influence over either; we can only influence our reaction and response to what’s happening now, in our own mind.

Now, our mind is a funny thing, and a very powerful thing. One thing it does is create the world we think we experience.

With very serendipitous timing, John Michael Greer (aka JMG) of the Archdruid Report wrote about this exact matter a couple of days later, and you may like to take a look at that. Still, my key point, when talking to my colleague was this: we humans have a very, very limited understanding of the world around us.

  1. Part of this is physiological. For example, cats, dogs, and many other animals, can see in ultraviolet. Others, such as snakes, can see in infrared. We can’t, because our distant ancestors had no need to. On the other hand, we have colour vision, when many animals don’t, because that was a survival advantage to our ancestors. Thus, it’s a simple, scientific fact to acknowledge that our experience of the world can only ever be partial and limited and, in many respects, poorer than that of other life-forms which exist next to us.
  2. A second layer of filters is also a survival factor. The world around us is incredibly busy and detailed; we cannot possibly process everything we see, and so our brains actively filter out things that don’t seem necessary. This is why you don’t remember may details about the people you passed in the street today. It’s also why, several times in the past, I’ve walked into busy cafes and spent a full minute scanning the place for a free seat before noticing that a friend was sitting directly in front of me! My mind was focussed on finding empty spaces, so it was actively filtering out people.
  3. The third layer is cultural. Older cultures, it seems, had no wonder for blue. According to the article, the same is true of some contemporary languages – and speakers of those languages were unable to distinguish images that to us Westerners are clearly distinct. The same is true for many other things (including, dare I say it, “qi”.
  4. The fourth level is individual: we forget things – through disuse or (and this is important) actively (though this is not all all the same thing as consciously). Also at the individual level, we are incapable of perceiving things because our senses are degraded (as a smoker loses their sense of taste) or insufficiently practiced (a cook can identify the individual ingredients in a mouthful of food, when the rest of us can only taste a general melange.

Meditation and the internal martial arts break down barriers in all of these categories except the first. Once that starts happening… strange things start happening. And that’s what my last week has been like.

It all began in yiquan class last weekend. I was practising various zhan zhuang postures, and ‘testing strength’ movements and – for reasons I’ll go into in more depth in a separate post – I was concentrating on being aware of my Achilles Tendons. I’d realised that I had tensions and aversions elsewhere in my body (generally speaking, somewhere around my knees), and these were preventing me from fully loading and extending my Achilles’. This is a big problem, as I’m coming to understand that without this, it’s not possible to truly generate internal power. This is one reason why, recently, I’ve been going for massage sessions: the masseur finds tense muscles etc which I hadn’t been aware of. Once he’s started work on them, I am aware of them, and can direct my mind towards relaxing them.

So, I was working on relaxing my tendons and then, like a lighting bolt, the power came.

I’d been doing tui shou with a rather more experienced student, who’d been succeeding in bouncing me off the walls. His technique is better than mine, and he’s physically stronger. Still, he was beating me by getting inside my guard, and practically grabbing my throat. Effective, yes – but not what I’ve understand as either good tui shou or internal power. I got angry, and my mind focussed on beating him (the yi in yiquan)… and then I felt my tendons being fully loaded; the power pulsed back up my legs and spine, out through my arms… and the guy was lifted off his feet and fell backwards… and into a window. There was a thin screen in front of the window iteslf, which helped to hold him but, for a moment, both he and I thought he’d gone through the glass.


A couple of days later, I had a short break at work. I didn’t have time to go anywhere, and the room where I was working at the time was too small to do a set of taiji, as I sometimes do, so I worked on some yiquan postures. Then, for whatever reason, I decided to try a taiji posture, one that I’ve only really seen in photographs of Wu Tu Nan:


At first, I wobbled around. Eventually, I found the point of balance; my weight was right above the centre of my foot, and was being carried entirely by the tendons of my leg and back. My Achilles stretched and took the load; I could feel the dynamic tension pull my pelvis under, then pull my back into place, then extend out through my arms until my fingertips tingled. My stomach muscles shortened, and – led by my kua – my joints were gently opening and closing with elastic tension. There wasn’t any muscular tension; my mind, totally intent on observing my weight, was clear.

And then something very intense happened. A repressed memory, something from many, many years ago, suddenly surfaced from wherever it had been lurking. My mind visualised it as being like an egg-shaped pearl, full of negative and difficult emotion.

As I’ve written about before, this is what can happen during meditation; when the mind is quite still, and focussed on the body, the body can start to release the negative emotions it’s been storing.

This was one thing I’d been telling my colleague: during my first 10-day Vipassana retreat, on the sixth day a swarm of negative memories, things I’d not thought about for years, were released. Shame, anger, humiliation, disappointment… they all reappeared. In my mind, it was if a great wind was propelling many shards of a mirror, each shard holographically containing the situation I’d been in when the emotion was generated, and I relived each situation as intensely as the first time. The great strength of the retreats is that this is an expected outcome, and the first few days are designed to give participants the mental tools, and the strength, to cope. We had already learned to observe painful experiences dispassionately, to let them pass. In this way, these buried memories, these karmic seeds, lose their power to generate new negativity in our lives.

So there I was, suddenly confronted by this visualisation of a very intense, very negative memory. I still hadn’t dealt with the emotions it contained. Every time I considered it, I shied away from it. Still, it was better to have it out where I could see it, rather than deep in my psyche, where it no doubt had been affecting my decisions and responses for years…

And then, as I considered my discussion with my colleague, and my explanation of karma, I realised that there was a karmic explanation for the situation that had left this memory. I realise this will now sound very vague, and kind of a get-out, but since the original incident isn’t something I want to discuss here on the internet, I can’t give details! It’ll have to suffice to say that when looked at from a different perspective, the problem wasn’t such a problem after all. I’m not saying that it’s just vanished; only that, like many stored emotions after meditation, it’s lost much of its power.

All of this is just further confirmation to me that the internal martial arts work incredibly powerfully on mind, body, and spirit, given the chance. There are people going around saying that taichi, for example, is “yoga and meditation combined”. There are others who treat it like karate: a series of techniques (particularly popular amongst tournament fighters).

The internal arts are much, much, more than this, though. Systems that can throw opponents into windows without much effort, that can reshape and restructure the body to repair and eradicate ingrained problems, that can clear the psyche of entrenched emotional issues… Wow.

Image credit: Pearls of colors by user Andrea on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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