When have you changed enough?

- Some guidelines about practice and change

by Daniel Skyle

Change. It is a basic Daoist concept, the very core of the tradition itself. From there it has come to permeate Chinese medicine, the Internal Martial Arts, Sunzi´s studies of conflict in the Art of War, and had a great impact on the West since brought here and reborn from roots that go as far back as the Celts. Change. It is trained and researched in Taiji, Xingyi, qigong and Bagua. Change. But when have you changed enough? In this article, we are going to look at the concept of change and some ideas about how to work with it – and give it a time-limit.

In Chinese, change is called bianhua, which in itself contains two words for change that are seen as two distinct kinds of change in Daoist practices. Each time brings its own change. Daoist spiritual training teaches that the principles must be focused on to adapt to this. Today, the change we deal with is very focused on the huge change that computers created, but go to the Third World and change might be something much more physical and dramatic, something closer to the reality of the ancient rural world that created these practices that we use among Ipods, Ipads and the latest cell phones.

The practices of qigong, Taiji, Xingyi, Bagua, and the spiritual exercises linked to them, physicalize change. This is very important. Change can be easy to look at as a mental idea, a mental xing, a shape in the shape of a thought, and might be thought easy to analyze – but that doesn´t mean we have truly digested and researched change as it happens in life. Daoism itself warns against getting stuck in mental planes – Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallée recently remarked in a lecture on Zhuangzi that the then shorthand for a scholar locked in thoughts was ”a quail in a cage”. The practices help us out into our body where we can see how it reacts and adapts to change. The change might be smooth, frozen or neutral, but when we research and relax change in our bodies, then our minds, emotions and very being can learn to follow.

Change – but when have you changed enough?

There is a small problem here. Part of our current time is that nothing stops, nothing rests, nothing is allowed to integrate and recuperate. Seen from the Five Elements, our society is locked in blocked Wood and Fire like insane dancers locked in embrace over an endless floor. So people go into practices or training with the good intent to balance themselves...but then never stop. Where is the line, when have you balanced something enough or changed enough? Implicit in the word ”balance” is of course that it should be balanced...but many of us are programmed by the current Western society, and our internal compass for ”balance” is off. We often don´t stop when there is actual balance. Instead, we continue way past that point in various directions, because that is the way our society today tends to work.

A more useful way to look at this is through writing it down for yourself. What change do you want to do? Why? What will it give you? How does it fit with your life and surroundings? And at what stage will this change be done? There might be more steps to that change, a longer path – because change of course never stops. It always goes on, on uncountable levels from microcosm to macrocosm in the universe and inside us and our minds. But setting boundaries for the steps will help and give us a clearer tone to listen for. Leaving work with balance or change open-ended will often lead to a strain on your system and mind. The chance is that the original change was accomplished long ago: if you pressed it onwards, you might now in fact be burning energy in your system instead, and this can injure your health.

Therefore, if you know contentment you will not be disgraced,
and if you know when to stop, you will not be harmed.
As a result you will live a long time.
– Gudioan Daodejing, last lines of chapter 44

Yin and Yang - when do you stop working with them?

Many people who are part of the techno-stress, high pace life of the First World really do need more yin. We need more rest, a calmer pace, time to integrate things in our life and a sounder sleep. Many I meet who do Taiji really did need more yin when they started – but had enough after year two, and have sometimes since gotten more than their system needed. By now, they can have more yin than what is good for them: too passive, too placid, lacking initiative, fire and drive, and are unable to see it ”because they need more yin”. When is it enough? When do you have enough yin? Some yin and yang aspects in us need to be released through working with yang, not just yin. Because there´s always both. Always both yin and yang. Balancing the system with yin will be good for some things, but might also, if too much, drown the yang in us and bring out some of the hidden, unpleasant yin ones we weren´t aware of before.

Taiji researches yin as its main focus. This should be balanced with yang, but often misses it. With people who train Xingyi, the main focus is yang and yang energy, creating a clean, relaxed yang in ourselves and in the way we manifest in the world. This in turn should be balanced with yin, but equally, many miss this, or have a teacher who doesn´t teach the safewiring process. Xingyi brings out and nourishes the yang energy of the practitioner, and done to extremes this too can be less than good for our health. In Xingyi, the problems are more noticeable, though, since they are yang-based: too much agression, too much anger, a manifestation of ego, a willingness to get in unneccessary conflicts, as well as tension or higher blood pressure could all be signs of Xingyi-practice done too yang or lacking balanced yin-practices. In Taiji, this would be more difficult to see since yin is yin. But it can include what we mentioned above, or a stronger and stronger amount of passive agression, or yang that never quite gets off the ground and releases, and instead can become a resentment or manipulation of others that never stops. Change. But when have you changed enough to change that?

Therefore, the Sage: Alters with the seasons, but doesn´t transform,
shifts with things but does not change places with them.

 – Neiye, Chapter VII, The Classic of Internal Training, transl. Harold Roth

Change and stillness: the balancing act on a tightrope of universes

Change contains stillness and stillness contains change. In Daoism, yin and yang change and interweave both in darkness and in light, but there is always wu, emptiness, behind them. A stone on a beach can lie there lapped by the tide and rain for eons, but it´s still both a change from change and changing, even though it changes very slowly.

Putting a time-frame and limit on the changes we do is one step to make them smoother and more useful to our life. When we do this, we can more easily adhere to the principles of song and ziran: softness and naturalness. They are both a crucial part of learning about change. Letting change be ziran, more natural, makes us use more and more song, softness and openess. Some times change needs to be the yang of Sunzi´s battlefield and Xingyi: strong, clear and immediate. Other times it needs to be the yin of Sunzi´s information-gathering and skills that make the battle never happen, and we find ourselves going more with the flow, relaxing into it and moving more in the background instead of shouting from the front of the stage.

Having practices for stability are important in this. In some styles, these are built in as standing meditation or stopping for short periods in forms or in the single-movement practices. In other styles, sitting meditation is included in the curriculum, while in Daoist training itself the sitting creates a backbone for practices which are put both into movement and out into the swirling sea of our life (what some Daoist traditions simply refer to as the Outer Cauldron, where deeper spiritual practices are worked using the events of our daily existence). Some of these work better for the purpose than others, but having some kind of still practice is useful, whatever it is. Like in all other training, the intent you choose is crucial, and there is a huge number of different intents used both in moving and still practices. Here, you want to have it tailored for your goal and allow yourself to simply stand or sit and let yourself land, gently becoming more relaxed and calm. Let yourself feel the stillness between changes. What has changed? What has changed in your body, your mind or your energy? Has something become clearer in the way you perceive reality? Is there now a new clarity in your mind, or in the way you understand how naturalness can work in change? You see these and then let them go, just resting there, between change and change again.

Change and the good heart

A key thing that the change-practices of Daoism include is haoxin, having a good heart. This includes compassion, kindness, and the ability to understand what a human life really can mean for the person who is living it. Daoist monks still talk about the Yijing and its practices today, in 2011, and they still emphasise haoxin. One monk I interviewed this year phrased it really well: ”We must become good people before we can become people of Dao” (in Chinese, the words haoren and Daoren sound better together).

The more we research change, the more the training should bring out compassion and kindness in us. In Daoist practices, this weaves deeply into Middle Dantian studies in the intermediate training. For us who still live in the world of red dust and do our forms and training here, it will mean allowing the understanding of change to give us a humility, a kindness to ourself and a kindness to others, and a growing sense of the compassion we should have for sharing this life with others in these brief moments before we are gone.

Haoxin, a good heart, will also be kind to yourself about the limits you set for when the first change is done. Daodejing may say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, but vernacular Chinese adds, ”yi bu yi bu lai”: one step at a time will get you there.

by Daniel Skyle © 2011

Daniel Skyle has practiced Daoism, Internal Martial Arts and qigong for more than twenty years and taught professionally for twelve. He is currently writing the first book on Daoism in Swedish, with English translation to follow. Daniel has an acupuncture clinic based in Sweden and has written on the subjects since 1994. You can read his blog on Classical Chinese Medicine, activist sustainability and related topics at www.smallchange.se.