Saturday, July 14, 2007

Correspondence With an Old and Dear Friend

My college roommate was a graduate student in the school psychology program. He was bright, witty, extremely personable, hard-working, and a bit crazy in a delightfully maniacal way. He and I spent untold hours together listening to music, watching sports and the Kung Fu series on television, and discussing Eastern philosophy. I was very shy and constrained. He helped to bring me a little out of my shell. Sometimes we acted like fools. Sometimes we acted like nuts. I do not regret the worst of times with him, and I cherish the best of them.

When we discussed Eastern philosophy and I read him passages from the books of Alan Watts, he seemed mildly interested but not enamored with what he heard. When we went our separate ways, I never expected that he would embrace any kind of spiritual path, let alone an Eastern one. But he somehow came under the tutelage of a Taoist Tai Chi master and became a dedicated modern-day Taoist and, eventually, a Tai Chi instructor in his own right.

I have not seen him in almost thirty years and have only spoken with him by phone once or twice. But we have remained solidly in touch by snail mail and, later, by e-mail. Our ongoing correspondence and friendship number among my greatest treasures.

The following is our most recent exchange. My friend's letter is an engaging mixture of reminiscence and reflection, providing amusing glimpses of who he was and a clear and inspiring revelation of who he has become. My reply follows. Some parts of our letters have been deleted or modified to protect the innocent.

Dear Steven,
Aloha. Always good to get an e-mail, letter, or some type of communication from you Steven. Hard to believe that we have known eachother for almost thirty years.....That's a long time....heck...that is longer than most marriages I know of.
I just finished my last day of summer school with kids today.... I work one more week, and then I am able to go on vacation with the fam. I find it very healthy to get away from work, the desert, and this area once in a while. It is nice to re-connect with the past every now and then.
Regarding the stuff you sent me on You Tube.........all I can say is this........if it isn't alreaady pre-done..........I am totally lost. I barely know how to turn the computer on, let alone generate something that you actually have to knnow what to do. [My son] would be the one to know. Or, actually, there may be some type of additionl stuff I need to have Access to before we can fire up the Youu Tube. Remember, computers change so fast, and I am so slow, it is very likely that I need to update my computer to get into the 21th century. The quest continues.
It is nice to know that you are still bowling. I remember that you had great pleasure, and better than average success in bowling at [college]. As I recall, you had an average of about 200 to 211???? That average would get you plenty of recognition down here.
Some of the more elite bowlers have higher averages down here.....but not many.........I saw one guy bowl 280-something last week when my boy and his friends
went to the local bowling alley. This guy was an older gentleman, about 6' 4", maybe 250 pounds. This guy not only had power, but good ball control, and very good placement. A few times, he just "cranked" the ball, as you used to say, an sent that ball screaming down the alley, lighting up the wood floor.......Followed by a loud
thunder......and the pins would go flying. This was pretty amusing to watch. His little "posse" high-fived him, encouraged him, and genrally got caught up in a very good game. When the game was over, he had quite a little crowd around him. Boy, was it fun watching.
My Tai Chi is still a mainstay in my life. Calming the mind, and the soul is a very satisfying thing for me. As you have previously stated about me and my energy, that you so kindly referred to as "Vanilla Thunder", has subsided, and is now directed in appropriate and benefical manner to myself, and other activities. My instructor calls it Chi/Qi conservation and management. I believe others used to call that
Manic/Depression, Bi-Polar.............either way.
A vital aspect of Tai Cchi/Taoism, is breathing. As you may remember, I did my thesis on aniexty, and stress reduction techniques. The breathing component was the most vital aspect. My instructor has showed me the most effective way to breathe properly. It is referred to as reverse abdominal breathing (more about this later).
As I progressed over the years, I was amazed at the results. The biggest change I noticed was how my breathing caused a positive change my thinking pattern. As I recall, my thoughts, and actions at [college] (almost) immediate. There did not seem to be a filter. Rarely did I stop and think about what I did or said. I believe over time, my mind got accustomed to this way of behavior.........a program, if you will. In honest reflection, I am amazed, and I mean truly amazed, that you and I didn't get our asses kicked. Now-a-days, people would just shoot us. I recall, we did som pretty outrageous stuff in our day. However, I think us both being 6'5"
and 200 pounds plus was also a factor.
I remember one guy telling me he was going to get some of his friends and deal with us. My response was, "Go ahead. You can't have your friends around you 24 hours a day. One day, Steve and I will catch you ALONE.............and I went on to describe a few specific activities..................."
I will probably never forget the look in his eyes as I finished up my conversation. I went on to say that I was 6'5" and 215 pounds, and that you were 6'5" and about 225 pounds..............................As he left, I heard his sissyfied response,"You guys a @@@@ing crazy!!!! And I assured him that we both were.
My point being, I wonder how I would have been at [college] with a different perspective......(A Taoist perspective). That was then, this is now.
Along with the breathing, my behavbior is now filled more with deiberate behavbioral choices, fueled by a calm mind. And also a key ingredient..........loving-kindness. No significant monkey chatter to unfocus my mind.
With a calm mind, my choices seem to generate better results, at home, at work, in my personal life.
I have been reading several books by the Vietnamese Buddhist, Thich KnatHahn. I really appreciate his devotion and appreciation to the "present moment" and the breathing aspect. I do not understand the biochemical aspect of the body, and the brain, but I do believe that there is some type of chemical connection between behavior/thought/actions. When I think of drug addiction, behavioral patterns (Rage/Anger), I believe that there is some strong connection between the thoughts and actions of the person. Perhaps the pattern of behavior is so strong, that a link has been forged......Not always a good one.
I rememeber that I used to behave a certain way to some people at [college], often to see the reactions of people.........After awhile, I behaved this way automatically. I did not really think about what I was doing. I just did it. I remember several times, getting a "charge." Several times, [DM] would look at me and say, "What are we going to do with you??" I got a reaction. I would roam the campus looking for my next victim, my next "fix."
Breathing and reflection are a good thing. I believe that by breathing deeply, slowly, reflectively, and with a great deal of awareness, I was able to make new connections.....different connections..........ceraintly more appropriate actions, thoughts, and behaviors. And, upon reflection, I got different responses from others.......often more positive in nature. It was like,"What took me so long to see this."
Good for me.........I probably would have taken the road of the dinosauer and become exstinct............or the dodo bird....hunted to exstinction.
My Tai Chi teacher stated that as your mind becomes calmer, more still, more serene, you open up a new avenue, the spiritual realm. One in which you would never be able to enter, unless there is calmness, tranquilty, and stillness in the mind. That, my friend, is the next step.
I just looked at the clock. We have to get out troop up and out. I will e-mail you
later. Again, hope all is well with you. You can tell me of your bowling exploits, new readings, and other aspects of your life that you want to share with me next time.
P.S. Boycotting the 2008 Summer Olympics is my way of protesting the way in which China deals with the Dalai Lama and his people. 250,000 Tibetan people were relocated (or as I say, run off their own land) as a result of the Olympic venue.
Geo-Political genocide.....nothing less. Have we not learned anything from World War Two?????????? Obviously not..........or, not enough.
May you alway remain in the balance of Tao.

Dear [Friend],

Reading your words of wisdom about spiritual discipline and how it has transformed your life in such positive ways is like stepping out of a sweltering and bustling Sacramento summer day outdoors and into the cool indoor sanctuary of my home. I always enjoy your sharing of personal wisdom and experience. I wish I had more of my own to share with you in return. But I have never focused sharply enough on my own path for a long enough time, the way you have on yours for nearly thirty years, to do significantly more than spout abstract theory in place of relating concrete experience. The latter is what truly counts.

It is good that you are now able to take some time away from work and journey with your family out of the desert to wherever you decide to go. If your journeys should bring you to the Sacramento region, please know that I would love to see you, even if we have only a brief time to talk.

I empathize with your lack of computer skills. I suspect that my own computer skills are roughly on a par with yours. I can get around the web, access links, and use some basic software to a limited extent, but I do not really understand how any of it works, and, consequently, if anything goes wrong, I am lost. For me, it is like driving a car. I can drive, but do not ask me to explain the workings of my automobile or to diagnose and repair even the most minor malfunctions. Technically minded I am not.

All I can say about YouTube is that I hope you can find a way to access the links I send you, because sending you those links is one way I have of sharing with you things I would really like you to see and hear. To paraphrase a venerable old saying, "A video is worth a million words."

Yes, I am happy that I am still able to bowl, and I am blessed to have found a bowling center not too far away from home that treats the game with respect rather than strictly as a business. It is also wonderful that it charges what have to be some of the cheapest rates in the country for its leagues and open play. For instance, I can practice on Sunday mornings for 75 cents a game, on Monday and Friday mornings for 60 cents a game, and bowl as many games as I wish from Monday through Thursday, 9PM till midnight for a flat rate of $7. Most bowling centers now charge at least $4 A GAME no matter when you bowl.

During my best times in league and practice, bowling is more moving meditation than competition for me. My immediate goal is not to score well or win, but to mindfully execute my strategy as best I can on each shot. The rest will take care of itself. Sometimes, my body and mind become so unified and in harmony with the lanes that magic happens in the way I feel and perform. I recently bowled my highest league series and second sanctioned 800 series ever with games of 275-268-269 for an 812 series. Everything felt so effortless and nearly perfect that night. Sometimes I also used to feel that way playing basketball. I would get into a flow and make every shot from every point on the court, be at the right place at the right time to get the rebound or block the shot or make the perfect pass to an open teammate. I did not even have to try to do it. It did itself, like the Zen archer's arrow shooting itself to the bullseye.

You suggest that your "Vanilla Thunder" days may have been symptomatic of unchecked bipolarity, or, in the words of the immortal Jimi Hendrix: "Manic-depression has captured my soul." Yet, you found a way to tame the beast, to stop the emotional fluctuations and undisciplined outbursts of spontaneous folly, and channel your natural talents and energies into a calmer mind and soul that can see more clearly and deeply into the nature of things and "go with Tao." That is remarkable testimony to what human beings can achieve through sustained and skillful means.

You mention that your instructor has shown you a way of breathing that has facilitated this process. I would be interested in reading more from you about this. Here is one description I found online of the process:

Reverse Abdominal Breathing is more difficult than Abdominal Breathing simply because it reverses the natural flow of the breath. Reverse Abdominal Breathing is a breathing method best suited for those who study the martial arts since it concentrates focus on the hara during exhalation. Regular practice strengthens the abdominal muscles and makes breathing naturally strong. Try blowing up a balloon while keeping one hand on your abdomen. As you blow out, your abdomen naturally expands instead of contracting. The same is true if you are trying to push a car that has run out of gas. In order to express the power you are putting into the act, you exhale while pushing out. Reverse Abdominal Breathing is a breathing method which tends to infuse the breather with power.

Again, start in whichever stance or posture you feel most comfortable. Inhale through the nose. Slowly draw the abdomen in and up. The upper chest will naturally expand as oxygen fills your lungs. As you inhale, contract the muscles of your perineum. The perineum is the area between the anus and the lower edge of the pubis at the front of the pelvis. The central point of the perineum is called the huiyin in Chinese and is the focal point for Reverse Abdominal Breathing. By contracting and pulling up the huiyin you are able to concentrate on the abdominal area. Again, don't be overanxious and forcefully squeeze the abdomen. Instead, focus on keeping a smooth and relaxed motion. When the lungs are full, exhale through the nose, release the huiyin, and push the abdomen out and down. Repeat for ten cycles of inhalation and exhalation, filling the lungs to maximum capacity and emptying them out completely with each breath.

You mention the "biochemical aspect of the body and the brain." Like you, I do not presume to understand it. I doubt that anyone even begins to understand it fully. But it seems obvious to me, as it no doubt does to you, that we are a seamless totality of body, mind, society, and culture. Ken Wilber refers to these dimensions of our being as the "four quadrants." That is, to paraphrase Alan Watts, the more closely we examine our thoughts, emotions, and actions, the more clearly we see that they are inseparable from the interacting mind, body, and social and cultural conditions from which they arise.

I am happy that you have recently found wisdom and inspiration in the profound words and unflagging devotion of Thich Nhat Hanh. I shall always cherish the five days I spent in the summer of 2001 at one of his retreats doing morning exercises with him, following him on mindfulness walks, listening to his talks, and simply imbibing his gentle spirit of penetrating wisdom and palpable peacefulness. He is a man who literally and figuratively walks his talk. The world is blessed to have people such as he in its midst. And people such as you and your instructor.


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