My favorite Zen joke is this one:
How many Zen masters does it take to screw in a light bulb?
The answer: A green tree in a quiet forest.
I love telling that joke to people who don't know Eastern philosophy, just to see the puzzled looks on their faces.
A Quiet Mind is a Difficult Goal
The chaos that our minds endure each day is no joke.
We are all on the move every day. We are bombarded with messages, texts, emails, photos and social media posts, advertising and calls. If you watch the news or see online news headlines, the negativity can really disrupt your mental tranquility, if you have any to begin with.
When we take time to practice our martial arts -- which is too little time for most people -- our minds are still jumbled with activities at work, deadlines, what to pick up at the store, what our spouses and partners need, or what our children are up to.
Or, we just dive into our practice and start working on a form or techniques.
But if you are going to get the most out of your internal practice, you must quiet your mind.
A quiet mind is at the center of internal arts practice.
A quiet mind does not mean a blank mind.
It does not mean a mind that is detached and "meditating."
A quiet mind is a state of calmness and attentiveness, when you are able to "get in the zone" and focus on one thing.
To get to a state of mental quietness, you often need to spend some time meditating and calming yourself, mentally and physically.
A Quiet Mind is Important Even in Self-Defense
You learn a lot by competing in tournaments. I learned the importance of a quiet mind when I competed in sparring.
A lot of guys would face off with me and appear angry. If I got a good shot in on them, they would often act angry.
In Chicago tournaments, even though they were technically "point" tournaments, there was a LOT of contact. Gashes were opened up, ribs broken, and I even had a throat injury when an opponent punched me in the throat. He was not penalized and the match went on. It was often brutal.
It got to the point that I realized the angrier and more frustrated they became, the easier it was for me to win.
And that is when I began intentionally calming my mind during competition. I got to the point where I did not even keep score in my head.
Every time the judge told us to get ready, I relaxed my mind. The goal was to simply deal with my opponent at that time, whatever he did.
A quiet mind that is not concerned about winning or losing can focus a lot better on the flow of the situation.
Whoever scored a point did not matter as much. When my opponent scored, I would say, "Nice kick," or "Great punch."
And then I would deal with the next point.
I enjoyed the matches a lot more when I let it flow, and not having thoughts careening and bouncing through my mind, and the desire of winning, allowed me to quiet my mind.
My Advice for the Start of Your Practice
At the start of your practice, take five minutes for Standing Stake (Zhan Zhuang) or any of the Qigong exercises in the Qigong section of the website (or DVD).
I generally choose Standing. I put part of my mind on my Dantien and I focus on energy coming into my body and to my Dantien as I inhale.
When I exhale, I imagine the energy gathering and growing warmer in my Dantien.
Any stray thoughts or concerns that pop into my head are allowed to streak through and leave, as I calm the mind. If I find other thoughts intruding, I don't criticize myself, I just re-focus on my breathing and the mental visualization of the energy coming in and storing at the Dantien, getting warmer.
Sometimes, after a couple of minutes, I change, and when I exhale I imagine a ball of energy going from my Dantien up and through my right arm, across the space between my hands, into my left hand and through the arm, returning to the Dantien. All this is done while exhaling.
On inhalation, I imagine more energy coming to the Dantien.
After a while, other thoughts might stop entering and your mind feels more calm.
At that point, launch into a form and remain mindful to the calmness and the body mechanics of the movement. Stay focused on the "intent" of each movement and the proper mechanics of the body.
Study the Internal Arts Like a College Course
If you are taking a history course in college, and you sit down at your desk to read the next chapter, you will not make much progress if your mind cannot focus on the material. Your comprehension of what you are reading will be limited.
The same is true of the internal arts.
It is my opinion that the health benefits of the internal arts come from:
** Exercise that boosts your cardio, flexibility and muscle strength,
** Mindfulness, calming and centering that reduces physical and mental stress.
Some of your best progress and insights will be gained not during a class, but during your own personal practice. But it will only come if you quiet the mind and focus thoughtfully and deeply on the material you are practicing.
Let Me Know How it Goes
If you do not currently focus on quieting the mind at the start of your practice, try it the next few times and let me know how it feels.
We can lose sight of this in our hectic modern lives. The internal arts are intended to help you bring it back.
by Ken Gullette
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