The First Practice is Attention
Before you start physical exercise, take a moment to consider if you can engage in the motion requirements of that activity.
You never consider your physical condition when you bend down to pick up a dropped piece of paper or grab a suitcase from the baggage carousel at the airport. During these innocent movements you will hear the back crack, or the hip pop, and you find yourself in the doctor’s office seeking relief.
It was not the innocent movement at the office or airport that caused the pain or injury. It was the lack of motion, or the repetition of thousands of other motions that created the conditions for the innocent movement to become a life changing experience. Picking up your luggage or bending to tie your shoe is a motion that your body can perform. It is a wonderfully designed machine with levers and pulleys all cooperating to perform the most wonderful feat in the natural world—walking upright.
The problem with the modern world is that you do not do enough of this walking upright activity and the cooperation between large and small muscles breaks down. Therefore, before starting this or any exercise program, you must perform a careful self-examination and ask yourself: “What types of physical activity can I safely do?” Consider the flexibility of your joints and back, if there is pain or tightness in these areas, consider other exercise programs to repair those conditions before you embark on this journey.
The most important concept you will explore in your practice is attention. When you say the word attention individuals have different reactions. In the military, it means to stop your current activity and stand at attention. In school, it means to set aside the cell phone and give your full focus to the instructor. In relationships, it means to take notice of someone. We pay attention to problems so we may correct them. We blame doctors and CEOs for their inattention when a patient dies, or a company fails.
You have paid attention to television, to work, to email, to books, to traffic, to problems and circumstances, to money and occupation, to family and friends, but have you paid attention to yourself?
Your first exercise is to sit somewhere uncomfortable with no distractions. You need somewhere uncomfortable to break through the mind clutter and help you notice your surroundings. If you start by sitting somewhere comfortable, you will not be able to turn off your random thoughts.
A stairway in or near your home is ideal. Stairs are often narrow and hard enough that if you sit up straight, you will be uncomfortable. Choose a position high enough so you can position your thighs flat in front of you.
You need to turn off the television or radio in the background so you can be quiet and alone for a few minutes. Turn off your cellphone.
You should have absolutely nothing to do while you are sitting. Before you sit down, make a note of the time, and try not to have any timekeeping device within eyeshot.
Now, sit straight, try to eliminate any arch in your back. Place your hands on your thighs and relax your shoulders pulling them back a little if you can. Breathe in and out through your nose. Make the breaths long and smooth. You should be intensely aware of your breathing, and nothing else.
Sit. Breathe. Be attentive to yourself. At some point, you will aimlessly get up and continue with the same mindless activities you were doing before you began the exercise. When you notice that is what you have done, note the time and determine how long you could be attentive to yourself.
You are not trying to sit for a certain amount of time, but long enough to pay back some of that attention you have been paying out to everything else.
Continue this practice for two weeks or a month. Note how long you can sit each day. It may help to keep a journal. In your journal, you can make a note of how long you sat and what types of activities were happening around you. Note how those things affected your ability to be attentive.
Attention has a high regard in internal martial art practice because it is the key to winning a fight. The slow, careful movements of prearranged practice are less about the form and more about your attention to the moment.
In this case, the fight is adding motion to your life, and the enemies are your unhealthy reactions to obligations, work, and various types of entertainment media. The first step is crucial. You must ask each of those enemies to step aside a few minutes a day so you can pay some attention to yourself. Without creating this initial battle line, your practice will fail.
The practice of attention gives the mindfulness martial art student an advantage over other exercise programs. With attention you are less likely to hurt yourself, or someone else. With attention, you understand where you are weak and where you are strong. With attention you can develop your own program of practice that will change with the seasons, your experiences, and skill level.
For the mindfulness martial art student, attention means stopping if there is pain. The exercises described in this practice are as simple as standing and walking. I do not present them as a cure for existing conditions, and they assume a certain level of physical well-being before you begin. If either standing or walking is causing you pain today, then you need help beyond this practice.
If you could sit every day for a week, then you have won the first battle, soldier on.
This practice I have labeled attention sounds suspiciously like meditation, and it is. Meditation is exercise. When we engage in meditation practice, we occupy our thoughts with a single point of reference, and we engage the body through breathing, but we do not move.
When you practice internal martial arts, you will occupy the mind with a single point of reference, the postures of the form. But the form practice calls for more attention than monitoring your breath. You will have to be attentive to your posture, to the position of your hands and feet, and the sensations of relaxation or tension that the postures generate in your body. You will have to do all this, while still concentrating on your breathing. This focus on attention is why the internal martial arts are called moving meditation.
Notice that I did not put any structure on this meditation practice other than asking you to note the time you sat down, and the time you got up. I did not ask you to seek enlightenment or reach a higher state of existence, nor did I challenge you to sit for 30 or 60 minutes. This is your practice, and the goals you seek are your own.
Mindfulness martial art practice does not burden you with increasing numbers of exercises that you must do daily to grow. Rather, it has many different exercises that you can perform during your daily moment of attention. The idea is to have variety. Variety is the spice of life.
Through my books, I have shared my personal journey and how on at least one occasion I had become disconnected from my practice and how events happened to reconnect me.
Writing your personal journey and reviewing it for landmarks that were transformational in your life is the only way, I can think of, that you will know yourself. What I have learned from my journaling practice is that the transformational moments are not what you expected.
You expect the transformational moments to be things like graduating from school or starting a new job. I find they are more subtle, like the pop of a joint, or the discovery of a new hobby. You do not recognize these new milestones because you are not paying attention.
If you are using a journal with your practice or not, I encourage you to write some goals for your practice, but do not put a timeframe around them. If you cannot think of any goals, write your reason for practicing martial arts that you chose from the previous lesson.
Before you begin the physical exercises in the Earth Dragon Canon Method, you will stand in Wuji Posture and clear your mind of other thoughts. This is like the attention practice from the previous section. Except in your standing practice, you will begin developing awareness of your body.
Remember the story of the egg in the Origins section where “there was nothing but a formless chaos.” This is the state of wuji. Before creation there was nothing, no form, no substance, just void and nothingness. All of existence was present at the beginning of time, and this sum-total of existence was aware of itself in its entirety.
While standing in Wuji Posture your mind will fit this formless chaos definition, racing from thought to thought. Your body will be standing upright, but you will remain still. You want to stand until your body and mind are aware of itself in its entirety.
Some teachers stress low or wide standing postures to develop strong legs. This creates a condition they call rootedness. Being firmly rooted means that it will be more difficult to push you over, and you will have more power to push others away.
Awareness and rootedness are the same thing. Rootedness implies that you are fixed to the ground, like a tree, or a plant with roots seeking deeply into the soil for nourishment. Standing firm, however, is not the way of internal martial arts. It is with a calm heart and mind that you create your roots. The nourishment you seek in standing practice is both the practice of strong mental focus and physical awareness of your body’s place in space and time.
Standing practice is boring, but it will improve the function of your martial forms. Standing for short periods of time develops attention to your structural alignment and you will use this knowledge for all of your subsequent practice.
There are different versions of the Wuji Posture demonstrated by different martial forms, and different teachers have different interpretations. There are wuji postures with the feet placed next to each other, and postures with the feet placed at shoulder width. Some have the toes angled outward and others point the toes straight ahead.
Before I became more aware of functional body alignment, I accepted the various wuji postures as all being correct for that system of practice. After the incident with my hip, however, that changed. The Wuji Posture of one system, or even one teacher, became a clue to that system’s, or teacher’s, overall veracity. Bad functional posture such as slouched shoulders, hanging head, toes pointed outward, and knees rotated inward, were a sign that a teacher, or a system, did not have, or was not practicing, the fundamentals needed to maintain overall health.
Today, we know that the human body is bilateral in all of its joints because anything else would not work. There are two of everything you need to move in an upright posture. Two ankles are supported by two knees that leverage the force of a step and produce the ability to walk. The knees are attached to your torso by two hips that give you the flexibility to reach the ground from above and to change directions at will. Above the hips, two shoulders are attached to two elbows that multiply force and extend your agility to new angles. The two elbows are attached to two wrists that provide you the finest dexterity.
Finally, you have two hands filled with equal numbers of fingers that can act in opposition to each other, or in complete harmony.