Lessons Learned From a Passing Tree: a first experience of elemental energy
by Bernie Jackson
In my wildest imagination, I had never expected to be walloped by a tree. If you had found me as a college freshman, after my very first martial arts class, and had told me that over the course of twenty-two years, I would acquire enough skill to be walloped by a tree-and that I would feel proud of it-I might have put away my brand new white belt and called off the whole thing. This was a perfectly normal, calm tree, on a perfectly normal, calm day. It never touched me, but I had to struggle to keep my balance, and I ended up with tears in my eyes.
The scene occurred the morning of June 12, 2009. It was Friday, the end of a week of training in Dr. John Painter's Nine Dragon Baguazhang, an internal martial art having meditative roots and specializing in the power of circular motions. As we do annually, our group had met at the Zhang San Feng Festival, hosted this year at the Nevele Grande Resort in Ellenville, New York, for our five-day intensive called the Gathering of the Circle. All five morning sessions had covered the health practice of Flying Dragon Qigong, a form of moving meditation that is compatible with the Nine Dragon system of baguazhang.
Friday was the first day of good weather, so Dr. Painter had led us on a walk from our indoor training room to a nearby waterfall. It was a wonderful place for qigong, and we had all practiced to the sound of rushing water, the smells of a summer river bank, and the warm but breezy feel of sunlight wandering through soft layers of green leaves. Dr. Painter was pleased with the week's training and had decided to share with us a special treat, a Tibetan practice of elemental energy work not included in our regular qigong or baguazhang systems.
That is when strange things began to happen.
We were each encouraged to find an appealing natural energy source-a tree, the waterfall, a rock, anything that seemed to call us-and to stand facing it in a relaxed posture called "universal acceptance." With the right attitude, we would be able to allow natural energy to flow into ourselves, receiving precisely the amount and type of energy that we each personally needed at that moment. It was as if our special piece of nature would feel our presence, sense what we were missing, and impart it to us in the form of an energy gift.
Now, as a lifetime math and science student, with a graduate degree in engineering from Stanford University, I am not much of a "New Ager." This is one reason I am so fond of Dr. Painter's teaching, for he typically stresses the connection between his topics and scientific principles, often integrating breaking news from science and medicine with even the most esoteric practices. Indeed, the way I had understood the entire week's morning sessions, Flying Dragon Qigong essentially harnesses the science of self-hypnosis, using the mind's incredible power to command the body. And while it is true that the beautiful natural setting around us had enhanced my qigong set, I attributed that to my own pleasant relaxation at being outdoors, rather than an actual connection with energy sources inside rocks and trees. This left me at a loss to imagine the science behind our new Tibetan practice.
Nevertheless, it deserved a sincere effort. In seven years with this Nine Dragon Baguazhang group, I have come across many things that at first seemed magical or impossible but in the end turned out to be subtle combinations of attention, technique, and practice. The days when I might have felt silly to stand motionless in front of a tree for fifteen minutes or slowly wave my arms in circles, or to imagine (with utter sincerity!) that I am a giant balloon filling up with air, are long past, due to the successes I have seen and felt with these sorts of exercises.
The Flying Dragon Qigong workshop itself had been a case in point, as the lessons had created new and strange sensations at various "energy gates" of my body, phenomena I could easily have doubted had I not participated. However, to experience these things directly is to learn that they are at once less fantastic yet more powerful than they sound when explained in words. Like self-hypnosis, they begin in the imagination and grow stronger as one imagines more and more detail in all the senses. Then, as one allows oneself to believe in them, they become as real as everyday sensations, with the same qualities, but combined, intensified, or repackaged in startling ways. With practice, these sensations can be turned on and off at will, very quickly, and can be exploited for health benefits or to generate martial power.
So it was that I set about looking for my special bit of nature, having no idea what it might look like or how it might call me-and fearing that nothing might call me or that I might be too dense to hear it-when I found myself examining an interesting tree. It had two trunks fused together where they emerged from the ground-two entities standing in their own separate spaces yet pointing the same way, enduring the same things, and joined at the root. Had it been a sculpture, it would have borne the title "Harmony." Noticing that I had come to a standstill quite involuntarily, even while preoccupied with my questions, I took this as evidence that I had been called.
Facing this pair from a few feet away, I stood with a straight, relaxed spine, arms at my sides, and took a few breaths. Now was the time for "universal acceptance." The physical part of universal acceptance was simple: turn my palms outward toward the source, as if ready to catch a giant beach ball. The psychic part (allowing energy to flow into me) was another matter, but fortunately, it built upon the "energy gate" qigong skills practiced earlier in the week.
As I prepared to turn my palms outward, I was still full of expectations and doubts. What kind of energy did I need from this tree? I thought of an email I had recently written to a friend, in which I had griped about my chaotic life depriving me of focus, resulting in "nothing" getting done and general feelings of futility and irritation. Clearly, I needed the tree's serenity, the ability to stand rooted in the midst of a swirling storm. What would it feel like to receive serene tree energy? If it were anything like the week's qigong sessions, it would feel like a pleasant, soft glow. But, really, would I feel anything at all? I am not a tree hugger, let alone a tree energy drinker, and I have never believed in this sort of thing.
What happened next has become my proudest moment in martial arts practice: I put all of these thoughts aside and snapped into a state of "beginner's mind." This term appears in various internal disciplines, from aikido to Zen, in which the practitioner must have an open mind in order to experience the lesson. It means to forget everything you "know," to release all expectations. It means to pretend, and to fully believe at that moment, that you are a rank beginner, that you have never studied a similar (or conflicting) topic, never heard from another teacher, and that your ego is not ready to pounce at comparing it to some other pet practice. Like a child who eats cucumber and mustard sandwiches, unaware that no one else likes them, you must allow yourself to experience whatever comes your way, on its own terms. If you succeed, you have achieved "beginner's mind." My transition to this state flashed by in several long seconds, and finally I turned my palms outward. Though we had been instructed to open just one energy gate, I had found throughout the week that none of mine were entirely reliable yet, so I opened all of them.
Immediately, the tree stabbed me with energy. It was a sudden, forceful thrust all over the front of my torso, with an urgency just short of violence and an intensity just short of pain. It rocked me back on my heels, and I had to sink into my stance to avoid stepping backward. I was tempted to break the connection, for relief, but I held on, and the sensations filled my torso until tears welled up in my eyes, like runoff from a flash flood. This was not a ghostly, dreamlike, or half-imagined sensation; it felt as real as wind on my neck or rain on my head.
My thoughts began to chatter: "Wow, this is not serenity! Where is it coming from? How can this be self-suggested, when it's the opposite of what I imagined? When is it going to stop?"
By now, my chest had tensed up to some degree, and the feeling was fading. I took another breath, relaxing and reopening those energy gates and the feeling returned. Now it was less urgent, as if reassured that it would have time to pour itself in without hurrying, but I still felt overfilled and brimming with it. Tears began to run onto my cheeks.
After a little while, maybe 30 seconds or five minutes (it is hard to tell), the flow had slowed to something more steady and less shocking, and I felt moved to end it. Gently, I closed the energy gates and bowed to the tree in gratitude as Dr. Painter had shown us. Then I walked off to puzzle over what, exactly, had just occurred.
Could this be called self-hypnosis? It would be my preferred explanation, but for one glaring detail: the feeling itself. Not only had it been the opposite of what I'd expected (hence, apparently not self-suggested), but also its urgency had had a quality rarely felt in everyday life, a quality that I had only ever felt once before. Are we really to believe that my subconscious mind selected this peculiar, violent feeling as "the energy I needed at that moment"? And if so, how on Earth would this feeling help me to find calm amid chaos? Perhaps "calm amid chaos" was not my subconscious goal? Fair enough, but then, what was the goal? And if my own mind had selected it, wouldn’t I understand it better?
After a certain point, blaming inscrutable things on the subconscious becomes a cop-out, a mere disguise for magical thinking, and ironically, because such blame cannot be tested by experiment, many practicing scientists would call it unscientific! One need only skim the ongoing Darwinian debate against Creationism to see copious examples of "untestable" equated with "unscientific." The grand result is an impasse: if we are not to blame the subconscious, then what options are left for current Western thought?
At least one thing is clear: science has always valued direct experiment and observation, even when the result flies in the face of every accepted theory. Where would we be today if 19th-century physicists had pretended not to notice the speed of light? And to notice it, to take it seriously despite all they thought they knew-did this not require beginner's mind? Certainly, it did. Even Aristotle touched on beginner's mind when he wrote in Metaphysics, "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."
My story is yet another experiment, another observation, another thought demanding to be entertained. Perhaps one day I will see it explained and accepted in Western fashion, but for now, that is not important. It happened, and I know it. As curiosity has always drawn me to these mind/body practices, Western or Eastern or otherwise, I will continue to experiment and observe with all the beginner's mind I can manage. If you ever find yourself feeling complacent in the modern world amidst all of our modern "knowledge," I would encourage you to do the same. You will be surprised.
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About Bernie Jackson:
Bernie Jackson began his life-long pursuit of martial arts when a friend invited him to a kenpo karate class as a college freshman. From there, he gradually discovered the internal martial arts and was intrigued by the way they complemented Western mind/body topics. After dabbling briefly in tai chi and aikido, he settled on the Nine Dragon Baguazhang system taught by Dr. John Painter of Arlington, Texas. For information on Li family qigong training as taught by Dr. John Painter, contact Thegompa@aol.com in care of Mike Leach, The Gompa office manager. Bernie Jackson holds Master's and Bachelor's degrees in electrical engineering from Stanford University. He also maintains a martial arts training blog.