Happy New Year Everyone!
It’s that time of year when so many of us engage in our annual festival of futility, the NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION! It’s a lame, but oft-repeated joke that many of our “resolutions” don’t last until January 2:
- “What is a New Year’s resolution? Something that goes in one year and out the other.”
- “At the beginning of the year, I made a resolution to lose 15 pounds. Only 20 more to go!”
- “I always skip the gym the first week of the new year. I can’t deal with the crowds. I also skip weeks 2 – 52 of the New Year but still looking for an excuse for those.”
Why is it that “resolutions” don’t stick for many people?
A resolution is really just a firm decision or intention to do or not do something. What’s so hard about that? The problem, as I see it, is that most resolutions I hear from people are “ought-to’s”: things people feel they should do to make themselves a better person: “I resolve to lose 30 pounds.” “I will go to the gym five times a week.” “Will be a nicer person.” Noble goals, certainly, but it’s just a matter of time before our inner saboteur thinks of ways to throw off this high-minded tyranny and return to our old habits and patterns. It’s because we don’t really OWN our new way of being and doing. It’s still something “other”–something we aspire to…maybe.
Learning to make a clean intention takes practice. It is a skill that does not come easily for everyone. If you don’t exercise your power of intention throughout the year, you may not be in shape to make it stick on January 1. It’s like entering that 5K race after spending the year eating Cheetohs on the couch.
Gongfu, “diligent effort over time,” trains intention.
You deliberately set out to improve your health and skill through intentional effort. The intention is not just a one-off. You do it again and again, each time as if it was the first. It becomes part of who and what you are.
Two Intentions for this Past Year
I would like to share with you two of my intentions for 2022. Both were related to long-term health issues, and they required some persistence on my part. Neither was a clear path, and resolution came from exploring various non-ordinary options. Both treatments appear to have been boosted by the firm intention I held for them.
The issues I needed to address are not too rare for those who share my elderly years (71), but the treatments I pursued are. I wanted a non-surgical solution to some vexing problems and gave myself a year before resorting to the knife. I am grateful for the many times surgery saved my butt, but it was never a pleasant experience.
The more painful of the two issues was excruciating shoulder pain that often woke me in the night. Many injuries over the last forty years had taken their toll: sports, martial arts, construction work. I often had to use topical analgesics, such as lidocaine, but those would wear off after a few hours. I took Tylenol at bedtime in hopes of getting a few good hours. I tried many different exercises to correct the problem, but none seemed to move the needle much. Surgery seemed to be inevitable at some point.
The other physical difficulty is called Dupuytren Contracture. The Mayo Clinic describes it like this:
Dupuytren contracture is a painless condition that causes one or more fingers to bend toward the palm of the hand. The affected fingers can’t straighten completely.Knots of tissue form under the skin. They eventually create a thick cord that can pull the fingers into a bent position. The condition gradually gets worse with time…There’s no cure for Dupuytren contracture. (Emphasis added.)
Dupuytren is a hereditary condition, most often affecting men over 50 who are of northern European descent. ((I check those boxes.) The affected fingers gradually close and can’t be straightened. I had surgery for this five years ago for two fingers on my left hand. It was moderately successful, and the fingers are straighter. But there was a long recovery period, and there is scar tissue on the little finger that can be painful. The little finger gradually regressed and can’t fully straighten. So, mixed results. I didn’t want to repeat that process for my right hand, if possible. But I didn’t want a claw for a hand either…and the Mayo Clinic says there is no cure!
One hidden liability of having your finger sticking out at an odd angle is that you do less with your hands. You can’t clap your hands, or place one flat on a table. You have to get creative in Push Hands. Even putting on a glove becomes a chore. Your hands get weaker when you don’t use them. “Use it or lose it!” They are also more prone to arthritis when you use them less. So, I didn’t like the direction I was headed.
I didn’t know how I was going to handle these two things without surgery, but I made a clear intention that I would find a way.
When the shoulder pain became intense enough, I went to a sports medicine doctor for guidance. He is a passionate tennis player too, so he was totally on board for delaying surgery as long as possible. MRI showed tearing, scarring, and deterioration in the rotator cuff. No surprise there. “Rode hard and put away wet,” as the saying goes. I have asked a lot of my shoulders over the years, and have not always been kind to them. The doctor suggested an interesting new alternative: Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP).
A small amount of your own blood is withdrawn and put in a centrifuge to separate out the platelets. Platelets are best known for their clotting ability, but they also have a high concentration of growth factors. Plasma is the liquid part of the blood in which red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets are suspended. The isolated platelets from the centrifuge are reintroduced to the plasma in a higher concentration. This is then injected into the injured area. The body responds with inflammation as healing resources are drawn to that area. The inflammation recedes after a week or so and the body seeks to rebuild the injured area with the help of the growth factors.
PRP doesn’t work for everyone and everything, and it is not covered by insurance. It is still pretty new. The cost varies, but I was able to get mine for around $600. I noticed a little improvement after the first injection, so I had another about six months later.
It is a gradual healing process, but my shoulders feel better now than they have in decades. I can sleep through the night without pain and my range of motion is as good as ever. I refined my serve in tennis to be more efficient and can now serve hard with little strain. How long will it last? Who knows? I’m enjoying the ride so far.
I went to a top hand surgeon five years ago for my left hand, and he discouraged me from trying the then new non-surgical treatment, Xiaflex. I went ahead with the surgery. Here’s what the hand looked like after a few weeks when the bandages came off:
It felt worse than it looked. And the scar tissue in the little finger is still painful after five years. So, this time I was pretty emphatic about trying something different.
Xiaflex is a concentrated enzyme that dissolves the knots of connective tissue that distort the finger. It is injected in one visit, then a couple days later the doctor pulls on the finger to snap the cord and straighten the finger. I wore a splint to bed at night to keep the finger straight, but I was able to play tennis a few days after the treatment, once the swelling went down. Physical therapy expands the range of motion and increases strength and mobility.
Xiaflex doesn’t work for everyone, and less than half are satisfied with the results.
I’m really satisfied so far. I can lay my hand flat on a table for the first time in years.
Both of these treatments are a statistical coin-toss. What could I do to get the coin to come up heads for me?
One word: Intention.
I have a lot of admiration, respect, and gratitude for the many allopathic physicians who have patched me together and saved my life after my many misadventures. I enter the process with a strong intention to heal as quickly as possible. That intention allows me to align my actions with the therapy to create the best result.
What is intention? A prior conscious decision to perform a behavior or bring about a result.
The effectiveness of an intention is directly correlated to control of one’s attention. That is, one must be able to control one’s mind to eliminate the second-guessing and self-sabotage that creates non-coherence in the body-mind. Controlling attention brings coherence/wholeness to the body-mind. It calms the mental turmoil that disrupts effective action. Intention propels us in a direction, and the clearer the goal or purpose, the easier it is to align action to the energy.
Intention and Will
Intentiion and Will fulfill each other. Intention is a skill that can be developed and honed. It comes easier to some, but we can all improve. Each time we see our intentions rewarded confidence grows. We learn to trust that our intentions can shape real-world events. Will is its partner.
Intention says, “I want to Be, Do, or Have that.” The mind considers something is important and chooses to start, change, or stop it. “I am going to be a fireman when I grow up.” I will drop 20 pounds.” “I want a red Lamborghini.” The mind must identify what it wants before it can be, do, or have it…even if what it wants is to “do nothing.”
Once you hold an Intention, Will makes it happen. It executes the desire. If my intention is to go to the hardware store to purchase a screwdriver, Will provides the impetus to bring that intention into being, to actually do what is necessary to make it so. Will unifies body-mind-spirit and gives it direction.
Will is called Zhi in Chinese medicine, and is a function of Kidney Jing. Daoist scholar Liu Yiming thinks that the stability of will sets up the foundation of our ability to seek the authentic self and fulfill our destiny. It is essential to body-mind-spirit integration and to all Gongfu. Gongfu develops both Intention and Will.
The Power of Eight
Intention can be practiced to make it clearer, cleaner, and more powerful. One brilliant approach to training Intention is “The Power of Eight,” an idea championed by Lynne McTaggert, author of The Field and The Intention Experiment. She conducted ten years of experiments where small groups would focus on a specific intention. “When individuals in a group focus their intention together on a single target, a powerful collective dynamic emerges that can heal longstanding conditions, mend fractured relationships, lower violence and even rekindle life purpose.”
My wife, Maria, studied with McTaggert and then set up her own “Power of Eight” group. I eagerly joined it. We meet once a week for a half-hour to focus on an issue one of the members brings up. The practice one gets from holding an intention for another person carries over to all the mundane decisions one makes in life. You become more decisive and confident. The group intention amplifies the power to accomplish things.
When it was my turn in two different meetings this, I chose to focus on healing my shoulders and hand without surgery. Both were long shots: my shoulder had been a issue for decades and the Mayo Clinic thinks that Dupuytren is “incurable.” Perfect! Both were worthy challenges. The group held the intentions by visualizing both as successful results. The exact process we use is a topic for another day, but it gave me confidence that a way could be found to make both happen. I am happy with the results so far.
Training Intention in Taijiquan
Many people are perfectly happy learning a Taiji form, committing it to “muscle memory,” and then mentally check out while they go through their practice. They let the form run on autopilot. This is a valid approach, and will still yield many of the benefits of Taijiquan. However, I consider this a missed opportunity to train Intention and Will.
I think that it is only when we turn off the autopilot and actually take conscious control of our movements that the full realization of Taijiquan’s potential can be realized. It is through conscious feeling and movement that we achieve body-mind-spirit integration and superconscious states of awareness.
In this video, I guide you through a few movements of Wudang Mountain Tai Yi Wuxingquan form, emphasizing Intention and Will. The same ideas can be applied to any Gongfu to enrich them with Qi and expanded awareness. As you become more mindful in your Gongfu, you may find it easier to apply in all aspects of life.