What a treat! This week we have a guest voice on the TCA blog. Ethan DeFord is a long-time Tai Chi Alchemist and Martial Artist of several persuasions. His brain is always working, and today we get to witness the fruit of its labor. Please feel free to comment and discuss, personally this gets me in the mood to soak in a hot tub, surrounded by red rocks…


What follows is not the Truth, it is simply my perspective. No matter the certainty with which I make a statement, please consider well for yourself and leave even the things that sit well as an open door.

We are immersed in choices. Each moment we make a choice with a myriad of results. There is no no-choice. (Apparent) inaction is a choice. A “no-brainer” is still a choice. Each choice is an opportunity to act consciously, or glaze over the details. Living in the moment means living in your choice, whatever that choice may be.

I make the following assertions, consider:
1.) Anything is possible.
2.) The path to that ‘anything’ is not always clear.
3.) If you don’t see an obvious path (and even if you do), broadening your awareness may show you a(nother) path.
4.) We do not choose the results, we choose our intent, which in turn directs our influence.

To clarify #4, and this is an arbitrary exercise in semantics, but as language is a bridge between our minds, shared language can empower our minds to meet. We live in a goal-focused society; we are possessed with getting the result, reaching the destination, “just getting through this.” This comes at the expense of the moment as we are focusing all our attention on where we want to end up instead of where we are. We also live in a heavily fear-centered culture where many participants cater to their own fears and/or try to encourage fear in others to get the behavior they want from them (“buy, vote, don’t challenge!”). In the face of fear, we grasp for ‘control.’ I mark it so because I use the word for a specific meaning. I see ‘control’ as the extreme end of a scale, and I call that scale ‘influence.’

We are connected to everything, directly. We may only see some of our connections and so only perceive the other connections as indirect. Either way, every action we make influences everything connected to us. Control, as the extreme of that scale, is the realization of the exact result of our intention by the exact manipulation of our influence. Put differently, control is performing the exact action to get the exact result you want. Within this definition, control is only possible through omniscience and omnipotence as it requires complete awareness of every connection and the refined ability to interact with each connection simultaneously in precisely the manner required to reach the intended result. So, for our day to day purposes, control is a “perfection,” a direction to head towards, perhaps, but not our reality. We do not choose our result, we choose our intent, and it directs our influence. The “control” that we believe we can attain is an illusion. In order to feel that we are controlling our circumstances, we squint our eyes so we only focus on the results we want. We partially or wholly discount the times where we do not accomplish our desired result so that it doesn’t highlight the fact that we are not in control, or we take it as a challenge to try to control harder!

To illustrate my point further, I am going to steal roughly from the early sequence of Buddhism’s 8-fold path, for those who have some familiarity.

We distinguish our self as we perceive our self in the context of the world.
1.) Sensory Perception
2.) Cognitive Internalization
3.) Rational Processing

Sensory Perception is the functional path through which “external” information reaches our brain. This includes both our “5 senses” and our sensory equipment that we do not identify or understand. Each of these senses is a relative gauge of a specific phenomenon in the world around us. For example, we feel temperature with our skin not as an absolute, but as contrasted to our skin temperature. Any temperature close enough to skin temperature is non-distinct (technical term is “blood-warm”), while larger differences are experienced as “hot” or “cold.” As our skin changes temperature, so does our experience of what we feel, thus our state alters our experience of the world around us. Each of our senses has a range within which it can receive information, creating the first filter. Things we cannot sense, which is to say outside of that range, cannot reach our mind.

Information that is within the range of our sensors passes into our neural network. Cognitive Internalization is my fancy phrase for the first action of the brain as it processes that incoming information. Before it ever rises to the level of conscious awareness, incoming information is filtered, organized, and sorted. The pre-conscious mind builds an archetypal reference, a set of general concepts that it can compare incoming information against. These archetypes allow the pre-conscious mind to pick out “close-enough” matches to previously learned concepts so that the information is presented in a more rapidly digestible fashion. For example, we look at a looming oak and our brain sorts it by “large, leafy tree” and we do not have to work to attain an immediate recognition. This represents the second filter. Information that is wholly outside of our contextualized experience is not escalated to the conscious mind (though perhaps it is not fully excluded either). We spend our formative years developing the first archetypal structures, which is part of the reason why we do not have vivid memories of our first years after birth. Archetypes are matured, revised, and diversified as our life goes on, so long as we challenge and consider them.

Once the pre-conscious has contextualized the information it is raised to the conscious and sub-conscious mind layers. It is here that we make sense of what we experience. Here the sub-conscious mind tries, to some degree, to force information into previously, rationally prepared perspectives. For example, when driving in traffic and a car cuts us off, our sub-conscious fills in an illustration of the driver, perhaps as being caught in an act of angry intervention. “You aren’t driving fast enough! [swerve, pass on right, cuts you off]” We did not perceive the driver, but our mind has a prepared interpretation. The conscious mind now has the information to feed into more conscious and rational interactions; contemplation, consideration, in short “Rational Processing.” The sub-conscious or even conscious mind may, here, apply the third filter, disregarding information that doesn’t fit the understanding (preconstructed in the sub- or constructing in the conscious).

Awareness can be taken as an umbrella for all of this, and from these we have the foundation on which we build our perspective, our understandings, and our beliefs.

First of the 8 paths is focused on Perspective. Our perspective encompasses part of how we mentally experience ourselves in our world. It includes how we relate to other things and so how we see our potential paths for moving through our world. Perspective will govern what we see as available choices. You will not choose what you do not see as a possibility. Perspective precedes and informs our intent.

First let us note the difference between Attention and Intention. Attention is the figurative eye of our consciousness. It has a single direction, and is capable of only a single point of focus. There are practices to “soften the gaze” and exchange clarity of focus for capturing less information about a wider field of vision, but the mind likes to latch on to things, so even within this softened gaze you can find yourself snapping to things, a cat with its mouse.

Intention is our orientation describing the ‘why’ that informs our choice. In Tai Chi we describe that intention leads the chi, the chi leads and accompanies the movement. I am careful to distinguish intention from desired result. The result is the ‘what’ that we imagine comes from the ‘why.’ The result is on the horizon, the intention is in our orienteering, within our stance. While it may appear that we are directing ourselves towards that point on the horizon, the intent may not ultimately lead there, even if it remains unchanged with travel.

The significance of intent appears in how we act our choices out in two ways:
1.) Clarity of direction as our reality changes.
2.) Coordination of an apparently complex combination of many simple actions.

Change is the only constant. No moment happens twice. You do not walk the same path twice. Even within a single action, following an instigating choice, the situation will change with each moment. A clear intent guiding from moment to moment allows you to be present, fluid, and adapting, making many choices to a unified direction, even if that direction is not set solely by a distant point.

The second aspect ties in with details of action, so I will draw this point into the next section.

Those diligent Buddhiphiles among us will notice that I skipped the Third Path… or did I?! The Third Path addresses Speech, which has been sown into the rest of this discussion, and while no less important, I will side-step it for our purposes here.

From the way we see the world, we recognize choices available to us, we filter our list by desire and allowability, and we orient ourselves towards our purpose. Choice is initiation of action. Each moment is a choice. Our flexibility to adapt, accept, and be present lives in the ability to make a new choice in each moment, whether it is significantly distinct from the previous, or not.

The nitty gritty of action, however, comes back to our physical capability, mental-physical coordination, and our sensitivity to the changes around us. Consider the grossly simplified nervous loop that describes our action. We perceive a stimulus (communicated by nerves from sensor to brain), we react to that stimulus (within the functions of brain and mind), we act (communicated by nerves from brain to muscle), we experience our action which feeds back to governing/refining the action as it continues (related sensors feed back to brain, brain/mind measure and reply with adjustments), and the loop continues.

Here attention becomes important. Recall: our attention can hold a single point of focus. Logically, that would suggest that if we were trying to specifically direct our action that we would only be able to work one muscle at a time. Of course, we know without much thought that isn’t true; we constantly manage bodily actions that include many different muscles and functions without activating them individually. Within this, I believe, is the significance of intent in action!

The mind-body allows for a translation of simple, discrete intent into a seemingly complex coordination of small actions contributing to a unified whole movement. When we reach out our arm, we don’t activate each muscle individually, we have the guiding intent of reaching and our body pulls muscles enacting dynamic tension around our joints producing movement of multiple segments of our frame and enabling the externally simple seeming result of our arm extending. If you break it apart and look at all the pieces, you may be overwhelmed by the amount of things happening at once, but to our conscious mind it is a simple, direct action. Why?

Imagine a train traveling down a circular track. Imagine we’re up in the sky looking down as it travels clockwise around the circle. As it passes 9 o’clock it is traveling due north, as it passes 3 o’clock it is traveling due south. Two directly opposite directions! But the same train is traveling in them both at the same time. Is the train working to drive north, east, south, and west at the same time? Of course not. From the train’s point of view, it is simply traveling forward. It has a single power source (its engine), traveling on fixed tracks. I consider this framework to be an analogy for this aspect of intention. A clear, directed intention (engine), acted through an organized, coherent body (tracks/cars) can create seemingly complex results, results that adapt the single intent into each individual location/moment.

We are immersed in choices. We may not always see the step that takes us directly to our goal. We may not see a path that leads to our goal. We may feel that the “right” choice is not a choice we want to make, but that we must make it anyway. However, our perceived choices are limited by our perception, by our awareness. This means we can expand our awareness to discover new choices. We still do not choose the result, we choose our intent.

Bound in iron manacles, tethered to a wall, we might not be able to simply walk out of the room, but we can choose how we handle the bondage. We can fight, rebel, stress, strain, or we can accept and relax. Perhaps in a clean perspective we will discover the path to walk from the room… or instead discover the desire to stay.

Ultimately, our will cannot be co-opted. Our body can be chained, our physical actions limited by physical forces, our mind blurred by chemicals, or our perspective skewed by clever talk, but our choice cannot be taken away, only misled and coerced. Our choice cannot be taken, only our possible results (apparently) limited.

Of tribe and family…
I set myself to a contemplation. I’ve done the same contemplation for years, but this past year it took specific shape and wording. What does it mean to be a “tribe?”

This is still semantics. Words can be defined and redefined, but I think my ascription here is not too far from what we would understand as a culture.

“Family” is a term we use for our blood relations. We are born into a family, whether or not they are a part of our lives, whether or not we choose to love them or they us.

“Friend” is a term we use to describe the people we surround ourselves with. We care for them, and they us, but it is not necessarily about anything more than a bond, observed and invoked from time to time.

But “Tribe”…
A “tribe” is a group of people who live together, regardless of location. They are family not forged by blood, but by choice. They support each other, whether or not they even like each other, and all members contribute their part to the success of the whole. A tribe is an organism of will.

We Alchemists are not blood (well, not ALL of us). Some are friends, and many are loves. But we are a tribe. We come together in love and support by choice. Any single choice may seem a small thing, a moment. But that choice empowers us all, every time we make it. Each and every moment….