Thanks to all who made the 25th birthday of Tai Chi Alchemy in Sedona such a wonderful event! It just keeps getting better!
I visited Sedona for the first time in 1994 and fell in love with the place. I was there with a friend for a wedding that didn’t happen. The bride had a change of heart in the time it took us to drive from San Diego, so the jilted groom threw a party anyway. He parked his hurt feelings and gave us a fabulous tour of the area over the next couple days.
I was blown away by the place and came up with the idea of bringing t’ai chi ch’uan teachers from diverse backgrounds together to freely share their insights about the internal arts. It was meant to be a one-off seminar, but people seemed to like the idea so we kept at it. There have been lots of growing pains over the years and I am grateful to all who contributed so much to keep it going.
This year’s TCA was preceded the night before with an evening of ecstatic chant led by our own “Kirtan Rabbi,” the esteemed Andrew Hahn. It was held at a local yoga studio and was well attended by early arrivals. Andrew did his very first kirtan at a TCA long ago before rising to international recognition for his transformational work. (Check out the Kirtan Rabbi website and his CDs.)
On Friday morning, people met up for breakfast and hugs and later for a hike to the Birthing Cave (one of the places I visited on my first visit to Sedona). Energy there is sweetly feminine and the view across the valley is glorious.
Friday evening we convened at Mago Retreat Center, 150 acres of exquisite beauty and 11 miles back a dirt road. Once there, we pass through a time/space portal that permits us to pack an amazing amount of life into two days. TCA pops up like a magic mushroom once a year to create a transformational space that defies logic.
The alchemical theme this year was “Hacking the nervous system to create whole-brain coherence and superconscious awareness.” It’s a theme I have been pursuing in my blogs recently and in seminars and presentations this year. Evolution has created some default settings in the human nervous system that trigger preconscious responses that interfere with our ability to access the higher levels of internal martial arts. More important, these primitive responses lock us into habitual behaviors that adversely affect our health, happiness, and relationships. They trigger localized muscular contraction and autonomic nervous system imbalance, the opposite of what we try to achieve in the internal martial arts.
The simple hack I have discovered is that by accessing the “feeling” or afferent neural network prior to motor or efferent responses tends to awaken parts of the brain that lie dormant for many of us. (See my blog Whole-brain Coherence in Chinese Internal Martial Arts.) The effect is powerful and instantaneous. One instantly can access the soft power of taijiquan and the equanimity of a sage. The trick is to bring enough conscious awareness to the physical sensations to be able to bypass the urge to conceptualize the event. And that requires training the brain, because our default setting is to turn everything into a story. And that takes us out of the present moment and weakens our energetic coherence. Throughout the weekend I presented simple exercises to help awaken the non-verbal, feeling parts of the brain to create new possibilities. Jonathan Bricklin provided an insightful explanation of “Afferent” and “Efferent” neural networks.
Maria Barrett applied some of those ideas to explore the power of “Reaching.” Preconscious fear traps us into an unknowing physical response characterized by localized muscular contraction, the very thing that our gongfu seeks to eliminate. Even when we “know better,” we have a hard time overriding that instantaneous reaction to tense up. In “Reaching” we first empty out, clear the muscular tension, then “feel,” or access the part of the brain that senses tactilely. Then we extend without muscular contraction, or “Reach.”
Mike Casto, master of Indonesian and Filipino fighting arts, showed us how mindful footwork can help us remain calm and soft in the face of an attack. The movements were almost tango-like in the way they neutralized incoming force.
Ethan DeFord gave a brilliant explanation of the integration of tensegrity and hydrostatic power in the human body to heighten ability. Tensegrity is a quality of the connective tissue system that distributes energy and information throughout the whole body almost instantly. Hydrostatic power is what drives a hydraulic jack or pump. The relationship between the two can be simplified by likening it to a garden hose. The flexible rubber (tensegrity) contains and directs the water pressure within (hydrostatic). Ethan also shared some helpful insights on the body mechanics of opening hips and chest.
Linda Addison shared an theme she’s been researching for a long time, “Lessons and Blessings.” It is an approach to living that enables one to process and learn from even very difficult life experiences by gratitude for what they give us and teach us.
In Saturday evening’s healing session, Sheila Scheffler honored the ancestors and those past Alchemists who have passed, most recently Bob Messenger. She also welcomed the two babies born this year (on the same day!) to Chenoa and to T.J.and Sarah. Chenoa’s baby, Hokala, was present for the whole weekend. Wendy Jensen asked those who wished to state an intention for the future to step forward and speak it. The group acknowledged and supported it by repeating it back to the person. Andrew shared insights exercises for maintaining a healthy back. Maria guided an “Invisible Counselor” meditation: how to ask for assistance with a problem by mentally invoking advice from your expanded awareness. The “counselor” will often appear in a surprising form. Ethan followed by showing how to capture and embed a key lesson mindfully in the physical body to help reinforce its permanence and accessiblity.
On Sunday, I explained “Opening the Jade Pillow Gate” and everyone had a chance to explore the immediate amplification of soft power that accompanies that. (See “Opening the Jade Pillow Gate,” and “Opening the Jade Pillow Gate, Part 2.”) We open this essential energy gate by reaching (See Maria’s presentation above) with the Niwan, the crown of the head, and tucking in the chin. Valarie Gabel provided a practical exercise for developing sensitivity to the Niwan by providing rice bags to place on the crown of the head. We then performed taiji movements while keeping the rice bags in place.
TCA’s 25th was an amazing fulfillment of the original vision, filled with incredible insights, transformative experiences, breathtaking natural beauty, and most of all…unconditional love.
The first quarter century of Alchemy is in the can.
And the best is yet to come!