Where I live in the northeastern United States, winter is dark, snowy and frozen. People hide indoors, the birds are absent and even the squirrels are in dormant mode. Everything, even the animals, is impatient for spring. Cabin fever is real. It’s hard to think about cabin fever on a warm summer day like today, but that’s the day to prepare for it.
Qigong practitioners have to deal with their own form of cabin fever: people locked in their own minds as they develop strength that’s greater than their mental foundations. It’s called qigong psychosis. While it is rare, everyone is potentially susceptible.
If you practice any exercise diligently, you will grow stronger, mentally and physically. This is especially true of qigong. Eventually you learn to withhold parts of your strength to avoid injuring others and to allow qi to work its magic better. Sometimes, though, there is a weak part of our personalities that serves not just as motivation for getting stronger but as a foundation of who we are. Great power built upon great insecurity is a difficult combination. The victim’s mind becomes warped. He becomes intoxicated with power and believes the normal rules of the world do not apply in quite the same way. One classic distinction between neurosis and psychosis is that in neurosis, you filter data coming in from the world in a strange way, but in psychosis you think about the data differently. People with qigong psychosis may develop such a sense of self-aggrandizement that they believe they have mysterious powers. At some point, it can even cross over into Western concepts of paranoid delusions.
If you engage with someone who operates under a set of mental rules that does not seem grounded in the same world in which you live, you can try to understand and interact with them on their terms. However, the rules under which they operate tend to morph and twist in order to protect the delusion. You will always be on shifting ground, struggling not to become unmoored yourself! It is really interesting that too much standing practice qigong (zhan zhuang), which builds such a strong sense of physical balance and rootedness, can have the opposite effect on people’s minds. The best thing to do is to interact normally, from your own point of strength. After all, one of the tenets of kung fu is that since you can’t control your opponent, all you can do is to control yourself.
If you are concerned that you yourself might be thinking those strange sensations of qi flow are signs of your growing special relationship with the dao, that’s a good sign! You are reality-checking. The best internal tip I’ve heard is not to double down on your rising strength, but to use standing practice to climb out of the wormhole of your own mind. Focus your breathing on where you are tensing your muscles to support the weakness in your body. Accept that recurring twinge in your back as something to integrate and strengthen, rather than something to protect by strengthening the surrounding tissues.
If you are not into that kind of internal martial arts training but can see your life developing the same pattern as your power in a social setting or organization grows, keep yourself humble. Reflect on your weaknesses. Not only will it keep you from getting so caught up in yourself (or full of yourself) that you start to make dangerous decisions, it will keep you from believing that whatever you are in one setting does not automatically transfer over to others. I’ve seen many senior executives fall because they thought they had grown above the rules. I’ve also seen many marriages that fall apart because one spouse no longer wants to be married to someone who takes being King of the World home from the office.
Finally, be careful of how your social support network encourages or discourages changes like qigong psychosis. If you are a martial arts person or a powerful person within an organization, you can start to believe your own words a bit too much. Connect outside that network of self-reinforcing nonsense. Otherwise, you could end up like those in the not so distant past who believed their exercise and meditation programs could even protect them against bullets.
I’m a sucker for martial arts books. My shelves are full of guidelines for systems I will never have the chance to study, by masters past and present whom I will never have the chance, or sometimes the desire, to meet. There’s even a book about using taiji to run better.
Martial arts books fall into a few categories. The ones most people look for are the ones I think of as “How To Wave Your Hands Around” books. They describe the motions of forms and styles, often finishing up with short bios of famous teachers and cryptic translations of old sayings. The more interesting ones go into the mechanics: “How to Wave Your Hands Around With Intention.” It is endlessly fascinating to see how two movements can mean and do such different things with different intentions behind them. Is it a strike or a throw? However, lists of this kind of jing and that kind of jing are not always interesting reading since you really need an in-person teacher to show you how to unlock meaning and hidden moves within a form. The third category is philosophy, which is the difference between martial arts and fighting. You probably have these books on your shelves, too. Each of them has its place. I’ve quoted from one or another of them extensively in the Kung Fu Mediation blog, since each can be the source of great inspiration.
I’ve recently had the pleasure of reading a book that reaches multiple categories and beyond, Research of Martial Arts by Sifu Jonathan Bluestein. Mr. Bluestein is an exponent of two traditional Chinese martial arts, Xing Yi (internal) and Piguachang (mostly external) and uses his understanding of them to launch into an expansive, thoughtful exploration of the “why” behind traditional East Asian martial arts. Waving hands? A little, although it is not the main focus. Intention? Yes. Internal and external power? Yes, although he thoughtfully disagrees with the traditional classifications. Open hand forms and weapons? Yes. History and philosophy and interviews with masters? Yes. More than that, he touches on what most martial artists are secretly looking for: the keys to unlock hidden aspects within our systems through deep and authentic practice. That kind of serious practice can be reflected in our lives off the mat, too. Mr. Bluestein understands that martial arts are not only about fighting.
For those who are looking for more than the “how to” of martial arts or negotiating strategy, Research of Martial Arts is worth the read.
I’ve been slow in posting to the Kung Fu Mediation blog recently. Other projects have been demanding too much attention. There will be more on the way! Meanwhile, I thought some readers might enjoy this short article on tai chi from the New York Times.
You are walking away at the end of the argument. Your hands are shaky and clammy.
Or you are walking from your lawyer’s office or a mediation session. Although you reached a settlement, you are tired and wired. It has not sunk in yet: this battle is almost done.
Or the arbitrator’s decision is sitting unopened in your inbox. The hair on the back of your neck stands up and your throat closes as you reach for the mouse.
Or you are sitting sullenly across the table from your spouse after exhausting all words. You avoid eye contact, concerned that the fight might start back up even though you are no longer sure what sparked it.
Or, for that matter, you’ve been play-sparring in your martial arts or boxing school and still feel all pumped up.
People become attached to conflict. It does not matter who you are, or whether you are fighting on behalf of yourself or your organization. As a conflict is prolonged, people repeat and rehearse the story over and over again in their minds. When it is time to move on, it can be hard to disengage.
At the same time, the stress of conflict manifests itself physically. Cortisol and adrenaline are flowing through your veins; muscles are tensed in your shoulders or wherever else in your body you store tension; and the sheen of sweat on your face visibly thickens as the day goes on. Left alone, all this is poisonous: it can be unpleasant and seriously affect work performance or even daily life after the conflict is done. Addressing conflict poison is not touchy-feely or new-agey. It’s practical.
So what can you do? Here are some suggestions:
- At an immediately practical level, even though the moment of most intense conflict has passed, the final resolution may require you to take affirmative steps. These steps may include working with attorneys on settlement documentation, figuring out how to come up with a payment you are not happy about making, managing internal repercussions within your organization or with a spouse or reorganizing your schedule to meet new responsibilities. These activities are vital on two levels, both doing what you need to do to complete the resolution process and, psychologically, transitioning away from conflict.
- Get the conflict out of your body. Exercise, lots of fluids to wash the toxins away, getting a massage, doing yoga or taiji, meditating if that is your thing – before you have that drink! Although our built-in response to conflict is fight, flight or freeze, in the kind of conflicts you are likely to find yourself the chemistry of that response is not helpful for refocusing once the conflict is done. Get that stuff out of your system or it may stick with you and slow down the process of moving on.
- Look forward, not backward. People often tend to ruminate about the past. Now is the time to answer the mediator’s question about what life looks like after the conflict – whether it is in your personal or professional life. Act consciously. Managers should seek new responsibilities; those in less authority should wrap up their involvement and move on to the next project; individual disputants should seek out personal interactions in which the conflict is not the main topic of conversation. You know what to do. In time you will stop thinking about how things might have turned out.
Start planning beforehand: how are you going to put the brakes on so you can go forward?
Not sure I entirely agree, but it’s food for thought.
Kung fu masters have come up with many teachings that sound poetic but are extremely practical. For instance, people who practice Chen style tai chi say, “Don’t hit. Kick with your hands”: have a complete connection between your sole and your fist. It goes along with a Yang style tai chi saying that is a bit more explanatory: “All movement is rooted in the feet, controlled through the waist and expressed in the hands,” or one of the core principles of every style of tai chi, “If one part of me is moving, all parts of me are moving. If one part of me is still, all parts of me are still.” The endless hours of horse stance practice from external martial arts styles and standing qigong (zhan zhuang) from internal styles are not just to make one’s legs stronger and alignment better, but also to teach students to feel the connection between all parts of their bodies, how extra tension in the calves translates to imbalance that makes them hold their shoulders more tightly and painfully. The training even reaches further inside the student’s body, teaching him to breathe with more coordination, as in the “microcosmic orbit” breathing from the external styles or “back breathing” from the internal styles. Some Ba Gua students even claim to be able to control the operation of their internal organs. To these students, everything must work together, even, ultimately, autonomic function.
If you are negotiating with someone and your mind is spinning in a million directions, your distraction provides an opening for your counterparty to step in. Your arguments are not cogent. You do not project calm confidence. You forget facts and mix up conversations. Your constant retreats to your phone screen signal disrespect. While it is wrong to see the outcome of every discussion as either win or lose, if you are scattered, you are setting yourself up to lose. Do not be like the tai chi student who merely waves her hands around without the internal connections, whom the masters describe as “scattered and confused.” It is not a new age concept to learn to focus better!
Similarly, if you are speaking on behalf of someone else – whether it is your company, your employer or a client – it is your responsibility to make sure that the chain of communication and decision making reaches as far back as it has to. That way, you speak with the strength of the whole rather than just for yourself. If a company can say, “We hear you, but after consideration this is how the Board has decided to go,” it has much more strength than, “I’m not sure, but I don’t think we can do that.” All the parts of the organization should work together, or else, like the student struggling in a horse stance, some part is going to start complaining.
Realistically, this sort of integration and coordination is more an aspiration than a requirement. No person is focused all the time and no organizations work coherently all the time. As calm and grounded as you may feel on Tuesday, by Wednesday things may change. However, if you mirror the kung fu master, who finds something to improve every time he practices, the effort will pay off. In the meantime, like the student holding an uncomfortable position, find ways to strengthen the situation. Work on communications within your company and lobby your boss to get buy-in at all levels on your issue. Learn to use interpersonal cues to look like you are focused and attentive, and it will strengthen your connections. Take up yoga, tai chi, other martial arts or something that connects your movements. These small steps add up.
[This one comes from a reader’s request and written with the martial artist in mind.]
The dictionary defines “respect” as being esteemed or honored. Why is one esteemed or honored? Because of some personal quality or achievement.
1. Fear is Not the Same as Respect. Too many people confuse fear with respect. When I was eight years old, my first martial arts teacher, a former Green Beret, described to us the popping noise it made when he cut the throats of Viet Cong soldiers with piano wire. His senior students were creepy, too, all big fans of choke holds and neck throws. I was scared of them – eight years old! – and quit after a year. They were not what I wanted to become. If you are a bully of a teacher, your students will fear you and you will attract students who want others to fear them. They will never hold you in high esteem, only your fighting skills. The same holds true for people in leadership roles in any walk of life.
2. Personal Integrity. On the other hand, if you have personal integrity, you will attract those who respect you, not just your skill set. As Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit writes about kung fu masters:
“The most important quality, however, the quality that distinguishes true masters, is that they teach and practice high moral values. Some people may be very competent in their art, and may even teach well, but if they swear and curse, seldom keep their word, glorify aggressive fighting or are fond of sleeping with other people’s wives, it is best to stay clear of them.”
3. Acknowledging Limits. You demonstrate a third kind of respect every time you practice with your fellow students: respecting each others’ limits. Although different schools have different expectations, each of you has consented to the engagement and agreed that neither of you will do serious injury to the other. You have to learn control of your body, behavior and emotions in order to be an effective student, or else your fellow students will want nothing to do with you. You are one cracked rib or bloody nose away from being shunned. When we slip up (which happens), the better among us apologize, acknowledging that we have crossed a line, in order to defuse the anger that might result. What if we are the subject of the slip-up? We learn to accept the apology without letting the anger bubble up. Our own self-control and respect for our opponents is a major source of others’ true respect for us.
It is this third kind of respect that serves us well off the mat. Kung fu philosophy disfavors mercilessness when it is not needed. Do the minimum damage to achieve your goal – like the tai chi master brushing an opponent away like a fly, or a master of joint locks immobilizing without shattering limbs. That is respect for your art and even the humanity of your opponent. If you show that kind of respect for your opponent, you are likely to de-escalate the conflict. After all, if he is afraid you will injure him, he is likely to lash out in self-preservation. He is likely to respond to your disrespect with his own.
4. Respect the Consequences. On the other hand, at some time in our lives all of us have to fight hard for something off the mat. If the situation is so bad you cannot fight with respect for your opponent, at least respect the consequences. If you seriously injure someone you may face jail time. If you act viciously it invites revenge. If you develop a reputation for amoral ruthlessness it makes people wary of you, not respectful. Although you may have to take a tough line, do it carefully and with forethought.
At a conference on Collaborative Law last week, I had the pleasure of attending a session on Aikido and Conflict Resolution by Judy Ringer, a consultant and practitioner from Portsmouth, New Hampshire (www.judyringer.com). It was great to see someone else picking up on some of the same connections I’ve been writing about here. Even though her approach was different than mine, some of her core lessons, like centering and redirection, were the same. Keep up the good work, Judy!
I knew one or two of the other participants who had studied martial arts. Most had not, so it was interesting to see what appealed to them:
- First was the “secret ninja” aspect. People thought it was cool to be learning anything about martial arts. Truth be told, most of us had that before we started training! I hope it whet some people’s appetites. A couple of people said to me afterwards that they had always wanted to learn an Asian fighting system.
- Redirection is the essence of Aikido and plays a large role in many of the Chinese internal martial arts. It is a hard skill to learn in pure martial arts training and it is really hard to teach in an hour to people with no background. Talking to other participants afterwards, some felt enough of an internal connection to start to relate it to dispute resolution techniques. Others not so much, although all were impressed with the Aikido demonstration and philosophy.
- Being centered seemed lost on many. I think they were confusing the concept of physical centering with its new-agey equivalent. The reality, as all martial artists know, is that physical centering (perfect physical alignment) can lead to psychological centering. See my posts on Listening and Standing, Part 1 and Part 2.
- Being rooted was something people grasped immediately. Can I push you over or not? This crowd, experienced in conflict resolution, felt in their bodies what it meant to be rooted. I may add that to my repertoire when it comes to my own conflict resolution practice. Is there an ethical way to have people in conflict do something like Tai Ji push hands? What if they already have a relationship that might provide some built-in limits?
- People didn’t want to just have the experience. They needed to talk about it. One of the other participants, Prof. Robert Kubacki, who co-chairs the Civil Committee of the Massachusetts Collaborative Law Council with me (www.massclc.org/civilcollaborative), thought it might have to do with the distribution of Meyers-Briggs “S” and “N” types in the room. This crowd was over-weighted in the “ST” department, which suggests that a mix of concepts and hands-on experience was the best way to teach them.
I’m thinking about following in Judy’s footsteps and offering presentations on Kung Fu Mediation – making sure to allow time for a facilitated discussion about it afterwards! Please back-channel me if you have any thoughts on the topic.
No, it has nothing to do with moose. It’s the journal of the International Taekwon-do Federation, and it’s going to be republishing articles from the Kung Fu Mediation blog! Pretty cool.
With RSS feeds, other followers, Internet readers and a few other places these articles land, the Kung Fu Mediation blog has grown to 600-1000 readers per month. Moosin gets 50,000+ online (www.moosin.net). Since we can all learn to be better martial artists AND better negotiators, I’m looking forward to spreading the word even more widely: don’t neglect those hard-wired cognitive systems we use for all kinds of conflict. Thanks for reading!