Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Cause & Effect

When people are born they are soft and supple when they perish they are hard and rigid
--TTC ch.76

In this venerable verse, rigidity and stiffness are attributed to death while weakness and suppleness are given to life.  This comparison can be interpreted literally or metaphorically, as can virtually all of Tao Te Ching.  The obvious literal interpretation is that toward the end of his span, man is often physically rigid. Muscles, joints, and tendons are stiff from disuse. Bones have waxed brittle, more likely to shatter than bend at a fall.  Certainly after death this is the case. 

We could likewise discuss spiritual death.  We could say that people are mentally or behaviorally inflexible towards life's end.  Their experiences have often closed them off from the ultimate variety to be found in life, and they dwell in the pain of the past errors or in the staid comfort of habit.  Near unto death, many humans generally will have ceased learning and growing.  Opinions have become fixed, attitudes and habits likewise ingrained.

One might be inclined to infer a cause-effect relationship here.  Old age brings hardness, brittleness, and stiffness, and eventually death.  In our country, it's fairly common to observe middle-aged citizens who can scarcely walk unassisted, and even with it, move at a turtle's pace.  Contrast this with a common depiction of elderly Chinese citizens, who are often vital and active well into their twilight years, having practiced Tai Chi and Chi Gong for many years.

One of my worst fears was once the long decline into old age, and the suffering resulting from overall loss of health.  Since discovering yoga, I know that this (as are most) is a foolish fear.  Stiffness and brittleness need not herald death's approach.  In fact, flexibility training will likely will do much to forestall death and the chronic suffering that often signals it.  Understanding this, is there any surprise that women tend to outlive men on average?

I've already written an essay about the great benefits I derived from adopting yoga into my fitness practice.  For most of my adolescent and adult years, fitness was predominantly geared towards strength training.  While I acknowledged decline in my ability to flex and bend limbs over time, I ignored the symptoms until they became too painful to ignore.  Yoga's benefit is that it requires limbs to act in concert with each other in equilibrium.  Some of the postures can be navigated for a time with strength alone, but this is rather exhausting. Moreover, difficulty in yoga indicates regions of the body where stiffness has taken hold.  When one experiences fatigue in yoga, the cause is often not weakness, but stiffness and unbalanced muscle groups.  This is a common affliction in the western culture, where one's ability to lift and push is prized, but one's ability to reach, stretch, and bend is generally not.  As a result bodily abductors are exercised more than the adductors; consequently,  yoga is difficult and wearisome.

Yoga taught me that I bear stress in the hips, back, and upper legs.  Through sustained practice, I've located several pockets of muscular rigidity in those regions, so I'm now in an ongoing campaign to banish such rigidity wherever I encounter it.  My practice has also made me more aware of any difficulty experienced in movement so that I am more likely to notice it whenever bodily movement betrays it.  In theory, the body should be balanced across its central axis, the spinal column.  I should have the same range of motion on one side as on the other.  Granted, the left and right halves of the body are not identical; practices and habits will have modified the natural balance between left and right hemispheres for better or worse.  I am developing a practice intended to bring the left and right halves of my body into closer balance and harmony.

The deeper connection is that evolution generally flows from within to without, and here is the reasoning:
     1) Our bodily condition is largely the sum of decisions, attitudes, actions, habits, and practices over a lifetime.  I've seen it written that the only true exercise of so-called "free will" is the object of one's attention.  At any moment, we are free to choose which objects to attend with our mental faculties, again for better or worse.  We are conscious of those objects to we we apply our attention, and we tend to develop and evolve "in the direction" dictated by our consciousness.  Our power of will is exerted exclusively on those objects in our sphere of attention.  We co-create our existence around those objects in our sphere of attention, and this is how we exercise our vaunted free will.  Consequently, it becomes very important to exercise some judiciousness over the objects we allow access to our power of will and sphere of attention.  Maintaining improper focus can have negative effects over a lifespan, as we might imagine.
     2) Any inflexibility or stiffness in the body therefore has its likely cause not in the body (barring congenital or acquired defect), but in in our non-material essence.  Therapy is a long, drawn-out process aimed at locating the source of such internal causes and curing them through some sort of cathartive process/method.  What should be apparent, is that non-material causes cannot be remedied through material means.
     3) In quantum mechanics, there is a principle known as time-reversal symmetry (TRS).  TRS essentially posits that processes can be undone by reversing in space-time their stages of creation.  I don't know how to reverse the flow of time, but I do know how to undo stiffness through the practice of yoga.  The logical consequence, is that by undoing the material effect, you can confront and dispel the cause of stiffness, which is ultimately non-material (mental/spiritual) in nature.

This is still a work in process, so I can't sell you a DVD yet, but let's determine if it makes sense from a logical perspective.  Let's suppose that somewhere in our consciousness, there is a bastion of rigidity, based in belief, attitude, habit, or practice.  It acts in such a way to diminish our physical capacity to act/move (i.e. pain).  We do not need to know the precise mechanism by which the illness acts.  What we do know are the features of our experience which attempt to inform us that we are suffering.  In response, we engage in activity to counteract the effect of the purported illness.  The question we need answered is whether the activity performed is sufficient to remedy the effect of the illness  -- not simply to negate the effect, but to eradicate the cause.  The root cause was clearly sufficient to create a physical manifestation of pain.  Can our response defeat the cause?  Not directly.  Our response in this case is physical, corresponding to the effect.

Pain is a signal of an unhealthy condition, it can be understood as a cry for help or attention, which as you recall, is the source of consciousness.  By stimulating the pain response, a phenomenon attempts to enter your consciousness and receive attention.  By engaging in measures to alleviate the pain, you answer the call for help.   By performing behaviors to address the pain-effect you now demonstrate self-compassion or self-love.   By sustaining those measures, you move toward wholeness and health.  The decision to change behavior is a non-material response to address the non-material cause of the pain.  So long as the behavior persists, reason for the pain has no longer cause to persist.

In the film, "The Matrix" is a scene where a young adept is bending spoons with the power of his mind.  He admonishes Neo, "You cannot bend the spoon, it is impossible.  Instead try to understand the truth that there is no spoon, then you'll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself."  Reflecting on this and the opening quote I now  suspect that "bending the self" is no mere metaphysical advice but real practical counsel.  We all enter this world soft and tender, pliable and supple.  It is only through our experience that we acquire the attributes of death.  Perhaps all we require is sustained training to return to the primal state of suppleness and softness in order to cultivate life and greater power as suggested in the film.

How I Cured Chronic Back Pain

I'd already identified the hip flexors as a longstanding problem area for me, and that the right hip was noticeably tighter than the left.  Please keep these in mind as we proceed.  In early February, I found myself doing yoga poses to loosen my hamstrings and groin muscles.  Additionally, i was working on loosening the hips muscles.  Over the previous month or so I'd noticed some improvement in mobility in my skating.  Just before the yoga one evening, I'd warmed up my lower body in the bath.
(photo courtesy of Yoga Journal)
There is a posture called Child's Pose, fairly easy in physical complexity and rigor; the magic of this position is the extreme passivity of it.  Gravity does most of the work here; all the practitioner need do is breathe rhythmically and relax; alternately, the arms may be raised to rest on the back for more downward force.  I entered this and remained in it a minute or so, enhancing the stretch by leaning and rocking from side to side.  I started to feel significant discomfort from my right hip.  The discomfort built, peaked, and plateaued at a manageable level.  It was then that I realized that the hip was open!  Opening a joint like the hip largely means that you have flexed or extended it fully.  Believe me, if this sounds insignificant, it is not.  This is merely the beginning of a healthy relationship with a joint.  After a series of other poses, I reclined on the couch for a breather.  On a whim, I pulled my right knee into my chest and felt the sensation of full flexion without the resistance and pain that had long accompanied that kind of movement.  
I remember saying joyfully, "My hip is back!" as I wrapped my arms around my right knee as I held it to my chest and hugged myself.  What followed was absolutely amazing.  Words don't fully capture the spectrum of emotion I experienced in the next moments.  Grief, loneliness, guilt, sorrow, and more rushed out of me like a faucet, and I heard myself say "Where have you been?  I've missed you so much!"  It was like recovering a long-lost relative.  The tears began to well at the corners of the eyes and my heart soared with the force of its newfound buoyancy.  Again, this description does the experience very little justice.  The only way I can describe it meaningfully is to say that in an instant I felt reconstituted and whole, as though a vital piece of myself had abruptly returned from long hiatus.  I was overwhelmed by the lightness of my being, and wracked by the force of the sobs that tore free from my breast.  Then, after a time I was at peace again, though confused by the power, unexpectedness, and power of the experience.  As I struggled for ideas, thoughts, and words to describe what had just happened, it happened again, but differently.  The first time was a release of pent-up pain, fear, and loneliness and the lightness of being that immediately ensued.  Then, it was the complete feeling of joy and gratitude for what had just occurred; and *that feeling*, dear reader, is completely ineffable, beyond description.  It was like an orgasm in its intensity and the feeling of release, but devoid of carnality.  When it was over, I felt brand-new, reborn.

The writer would be lax to omit the events that initiated this healing.  I'd been in danger of losing my home since graduating in May because I could not find gainful and full employment.  On the first Tuesday of 2010, my home was sold to HUD in a foreclosure sale.  I experienced this as shameful and an embarrassment; that, however, was a choice I had made on how to construct the experience.  The 7 months leading up to the foreclosure were full of uncertainty and anxiety.  I'd read an article in the NYT about foreclosures and how homeowners who were "upside-down" or "underwater" (owing more on their mortgages than the asset was worth) were beginning to walk away from the property in significant numbers.  The threshold for this behavior was a loss of 25%, meaning that once the value of the asset fell below 75% of the mortgage homeowners were far more prone to walk away from their property.  My last tax assessment indicated that I'd lost 45% of the value of my home.  After reading the article, I realized that there was no use in trying to hold onto the home and that there was no reason to feel ashamed.  It's one thing to assert a truth, it's another thing entirely to live that truth.  In order to force myself to come to terms with my new-found truth, I revealed the details of my foreclosure in a Facebook status update in the first week of February.

Around the same time, I decided that I was sick of being sick; that I was done with experiencing fear, resentment, sadness, regret; and that I would consciously choose to experience joy, contentedness, and inner peace.  This too was confirmed through a Facebook status update during the first week of February.  I resolved to make peace with everyone in my life where it had been absent.

Now that I've had time to reflect, I submit the following hypotheses and explanations:  
A hip muscle had been locked, to various degrees, in a contracted state over a period lasting several years, limiting mobility and causing discomfort and pain through skeletal misalignment.  Clearly, this was the source of the back pain I had learned to tolerate and accept as part of my experience.
There is a mind-body connection, and it is bidirectional.  Psychic/mental inflexibilities can manifest as stiffness (refusal to bend, stretch, or extend in certain directions) which produce pain.  In turn, the body's physical inflexibility, it seems, can also entrap (parts of) the mind, hide, or disguise it, thus separating it from the whole.  Refusal to confront the source of pain amounts to tacit acceptance of it, thus locking one in a mental cage from which only one may free oneself.

The mind can repress affect (feeling), thus manifesting it in flesh as illness or pain as in the case of my hip.  Pain is not inherently bad; it is a signal of dis-ease or un-wellness.  When we respond to pain in such a way to alleviate it, we engage in active self-love.  Conversely, ignoring pain or suppressing it leads to suffering, which is altogether unhealthy because it does not promote self-love.  Suffering pain over a long period is like living in a prison.  The pain profoundly affects the mood and psyche in ways that we may not discern directly.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Hsiang: The Yarrow Oracle Depicted Graphically

The yarrow oracle method as related through Ta Chuan (the Great Treatise) is attributed to Kung-fu Tze. The querent begins with 50 (fifty) yarrow stalks and manipulates them in a prescribed and probabilistic manner until few remain.  This remainder may take on one of exactly four possible symbolic values, though the actual number of stalks may vary according the the precise form of the ritual.  The symbolic values are sometimes referred to as 'hsiang.'  Each manipulation of the stalks produces one line of a six-line figure commonly known as an hexagram.  Thus, six "randomly-generated" hsiang produce an hexagram.  Once generated, the querent references the scripture according to that hexagram.

In recent years, capable persons have employed mathematics to reduce the yarrow-stalk oracle to the raw probabilities it produces for each of the four types of lines that may obtain from a divination operation.  The following table is a description of those lines and their relative probability of occurrence in divination:

dynamic yin,   represented by '6' and symbol ⚏ ( 4 in 64 = 0.0625)
dynamic yang, represented by '9' and symbol ⚌ (12 in 64 = 0.1875)
static yang,     represented by '7' and symbol ⚎ (20 in 64 = 0.3125)
static yin,       represented by '8' and symbol ⚍ (28 in 64 = 0.4375)

The graphic depicted here shows the FuXi arrangement overlaid on a tableau of concentric squares, each discretely colored. This presentation is remarkable in that it explicitly encodes the yarrow oracle probabilities; i.e.  each ring comprises a specific proportion of the hexagrams as shown in the table above.