Finding Ekstasis: Xeper in the Art of Fighting

Last spring, I began studying Baguazhang. I had spent the year before acclimating to a new job that required me to be in an office forty hours a week. About eight months into my tenure as an office dwelling pencil pusher I started feeling sick. My body ached. My stomach was constantly in shambles. I started shaking all the time. This wasn’t surprising considering the lack of physical activity I was getting between my day job and producing music at home. Both of these things required me to be sedentary for upwards of eighteen hours a day. I would go to bed and repeat the cycle the next day, which, in retrospect is a horrifying experience to re-live in my mind. The process of breaking out of this self-destructive cycle began with my investigation into traditional Japanese fan dancing, Wing Chun, and Tai Chi. Unfortunately, I couldn’t participate in the fan dancing classes because they happened while I had work. The local Wing Chun school was quite promising, but it was about forty minutes away from where I lived. I did actually start doing Tai Chi for about two months with a rather nice group of people at the local Chinese Cultural center in Tucson, but I quickly bailed on them after realizing that it was a glorified swingers club for people above the age of 55.

I began searching for solutions closer to my apartment and discovered a school that taught internal Chinese martial arts literally a mile down the road. I wrote their association and was informed about their meeting times and attended my first class. The school was hidden in plain sight. The only indicator that the school was different than the houses around it were the two ivory “foo dogs” that stood watch at the entrance. When I entered, I was greeted by paintings and photos of smiling Bagua and Xingyiquan practitioners Dong Hai Chuan, Liang Zhenpu, Gao Yisheng, Zhang Junfeng, Li Guichang and a group of five people slapping the shit out of their bodies. At first I wanted to laugh, but I was quickly beckoned into the circle to join in on the “light” body slapping.

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I later discovered that light body slapping is done at the start of every class to essentially wake the body up by getting the blood flowing. In the context of my initiation this fit in well as a way to physically explore what it meant to literally go from white to red and back again. With every slap, my circulation improved, my blood rose to the surface of my skin, and for a few hours several times a week I began to realize the importance of using exercise as a way to quiet the brain.

Notice, I did not say my practice of Baguazhang shuts down the brain. Baguazhang is an internal martial art. It works by activating different structures in the brain that I don’t normally use while simultaneously quieting the prefrontal cortex. This allows me to stimulate a state of Flow by being able to focus wholly on what I’m doing without being interrupted by my self-consciousness. Bruce Lee referred to this as the “emptying of the cup.”

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Bagua has given me an outlet to stimulate my ability to achieve a state of Flow with greater frequency and ease. My initial experience with using martial arts in this way didn’t come until I was able to have a grasp the basics of my chosen fighting art. Which is why I’ve only really begun to write about it now–this is a new, unexpected development in my personal quest to constantly improve.

Flow requires us to bring several automatized skills together in order to kick up our focus to a level that allows us to experience it. It takes awhile when we begin to learn a new skill or artform before we can actually experience a brain quieting flow-state. Steven Kotler, author of “The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance” would describe this experience as “Transient Hypofrontality:”

“In flow, parts of the brain aren’t becoming more hyperactive, they’re actually slowing down, shutting down. The technical term for this is transient, meaning temporary, hypo frontality. Hypo[…]the opposite of hyper means to slow down, to shut down, to deactivate. And frontality is the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that houses your higher cognitive functions, your sense of morality, your sense of will, your sense of self.”

I get a sense of deep embodiment when I practice Baguazhang. There’s nothing quite like being locked eye to eye with another person while focusing on multiple outlets of your own physicality. The ancient Greeks called this deep embodiment, ἔκστασις (Ekstasis). Ekstasis can be best described as an altered state beyond the normal “sense of self.” Ekstasis is NOT Flow, but it is a byproduct of being able to achieve Flow on a regular basis. In a Setian context, being able to experience Ekstasis means tapping into my “divine pattern.”

Now just imagine how amazing I feel by being able to achieve Ekstasis a several times a week! Baguazhang has all but become not only a powerful tool, but a conduit in which I can interface with my higher self so long as I continue to practice it or something like it.

Tapping into Flow takes practice. When it comes to my practice of Bagua I fail at tapping into it several times a session. This is usually caused by me trying to mentally dissect forms or movements. In terms of my physicality this “over-thinking” comes from making use of my prefrontal cortex.

I’ve experienced wonderful success imprinting myself with the overload of information I get from my practice the less “think” about it. And the less I think about it, the more I experience Ekstasis by having meaningful personal breakthroughs on a regular basis.

For instance, I was able to fully retain the positions of the nine palaces and the thirteen elbow form last month after working with them each for half an hour. Everything prior to that took several months for me learn. Part of my ability to retain this information comes from the challenge of seeing if I could actually do it, which I could surprisingly, but part of it also comes from a grasp of the basic movements I’ve spent perfecting since last spring.

Bagua has taught me how to get in touch with my immediate physicality–a.k.a. those things that I can see in the mirror. It has also taught me that I am fully capable of interfacing with of my physicality that I previously regarded as impossible to connect with like blood flow, internal energy, successful breathing, and various parts of my brain.

While it could be argued that certain notions of “emptying” the cup could be misconstrued as more of a right hand path philosophy I would argue that the “loss of self” that is experienced by learning to stimulate Flow through shutting down the prefrontal cortex requires the same control it takes to move our sovereign consciousnesses through the objective universe. “Emptying the cup” is something I do voluntarily for the purpose of stimulating Flow in an effort to connect with my divine pattern through Ekstasis.

 

 

 

 

 

Finding Ekstasis: Xeper in the Art of Fighting

Rûna Goes Meta

Meta is a term that’s been kicking around in various gaming communities for a few years now. When we talk about meta in a game it is the self-referential process which something must be done in order to arrive at a satisfying conclusion. I.E. Winning. This process can be changed and can evolve with time through trial and error. Meta urges players like Rûna urges initiates to seek out the proverbial “hidden.” For instance when you sit down and play a game like Guilty Gear X2 meta compels players to act and react in certain ways against other players. As older strategies for dealing with other players become common place, meta-game evolves as a way to leverage potential future victories against your fellow competitors.

Meta, much like Rûna is able to be applied to how we form questions and answers, discover solutions to old problems, and arrive at new questions as a result of those solutions. Compelling literature and television shows, can offer a microcosmic depiction of how the process of Rûna can work and how it also is meta at the same time.

Rûna is what you might call an impelling word. Through Rûna we are driven to seek out seemingly hidden questions and unknown curiosities that burn deep within the mythos of the self. She whispers simplicity to which we reply with dissatisfaction.

First time viewers to the anime (巌窟王) “Gankutsuou,” an adaptation of Dumas’s “The Count of Monte Cristo” is an example of how our curiosity for the world we cannot see can drive us to obsessive investigation. Who is the Count? Why is he making an effort to become acquainted with Albert? What is his relationship to Mercedes? etc.

In the fantasy microcosm that is Gankutsuou we are exposed to a world that is filled with more and more questions. When new details are brought into focus, our perception warps triggering false positives, blurring our interpretation of previous questions we may have had before.

When we witness the mysterious we are driven by our curiosity to discover what makes it so. This is what makes Rûna is an impelling word. This force of curiosity is also the primary cause of how the meta-game in various gaming communities are both created and destroyed.

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“Gankutsuou” is an exercise in how the mind can work when exposed to a body of work that provides few answers. It replaces these answers with whispers of details that provide the viewer/witness with questions, and questions within questions. These questions are intentionally meant to steer us off course. And in order to illicit an emotional response through the resolution of the process that is “Gankutsuou” we must be bombarded by an extended session of false answers and questions. This allows us to witness a transformation of the hidden into an unexpected tragic loss of life or ideals.

It’s all very meta. Of course, Rûna in it of itself is meta. You have a question about something that’s completely unknown to you? Try to find the answer. You’ll always find a bombardment of more questions, many of which often reference one another. The subtle irony in all of this is the simple idea that when we arrive at an answer we will always find a way to pose another question as to why we’ve arrived at that specific answer.

In an initiatory sense, the process of becoming is also meta. Lady Rûna urges you to evolve through her “Awaken, See, Act” mantra only to have you start once again when you reach your next preferred state of existence. Initiation is a room of mirrors stretching into the very limits of your desire to continue with it.

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Application–Awaken, See, Act

Speaking from personal experience, I’ve spent the better part of the last year just completely at a loss of what I needed to do in order to feel “whole.” It’s hasn’t been an easy ride. Leaving New England last June meant I was leaving all of the things that I used to do in that space.

The only thing guiding me through this new and unknown life in the desert of Arizona has been my curiosity for the possible. Rûna, like a fly buzzing in my ear has been urging me to seek out new avenues in which I can be sovereign in this new space. I’ve had a lot of false starts–I even tried to do some of the same things I did back in Massachusetts.  Unfortunately, I’ve come up short every time.

One of the things I’ve become hyper focused on in my life through this period of trial and error is an investigation of what it means to live a balanced lifestyle. This is directly related to how I view myself in an unfettered sovereign environment. It is also related to how I view myself in general.

If achieving a more balanced lifestyle is the answer to my current dissatisfaction in my life then how do I get there?

A balanced lifestyle only has one law: don’t spread out too much into one direction. It’s all too easy to become too situated into an easy lifestyle, which means having concern for being comfortable. In the 21st century, the easy lifestyle means spending 80% of your day on your ass and the other 20% finding ways to spend it there. We relax entirely too much. Relaxation has its place, but it isn’t something that makes me feel particularly  fulfilled.

I need strife. So where do I find it? Over the last year, I slacked real hard on physical activity. In New England, I used to work a job where I was on my feet all day. I now work a job where I sit at a desk all day. Add that to a rather sedentary lifestyle at home and you have a recipe for disaster.

The question I’ve had for myself over the last nine months was, “What can I do to add something physical to my lifestyle?” I assessed what I knew and came up with several possibilities.

Running isn’t all that fun. I used to run five miles four times a week with my Rhodesian Ridgeback. It sucked. Anyone that says it’s amazing is wrong. Running sucks. Stop lying to yourself, the human body isn’t made to run long distances like that. Aerobics also suck. I used to do that a few times a week as well. Both are hard on the knees, and both aren’t especially cerebral. I’ve never been the kind of person to enjoy team sports, or lift weights either. So what else is there?

I played with the idea of doing Wing Chun for MONTHS. I really liked the style after watching Ip Man four times in a row one day. I never acted on the idea, however, since the only place to learn it in Tucson that wasn’t a McDojo was an hour drive from my apartment. Long drives can get brutal. I eventually settled on joining a group that did Tai Chi at our local Chinese Cultural Center. I went religiously every Tuesday and soon caught on that it was a club for 60+ singles to bang after class. I discovered that Tai Chi had some things I liked, although it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. Especially when it came to joining in on extra curricular activities with people twice my age. I’m sure they would’ve loved that.

Old. Hairy. Balls. SAY NO MORE. I’M ALL SET.

My search continued. It was clear that I wanted to do martial arts. I spent more time looking, researching, visiting places to pursue my interest in martial arts further. Like a fly buzzing in my ear, my fiance kept mentioning a dojo to me that he tried a class out at last summer. He said they did three hour training sessions twice a week, which had scared him away from it. They did this weird style of martial art I had never heard of–Bagua Zhang. The best part? The dojo was less than a mile away in a re-purposed villa down a hidden road.

I was scared. I decided to email them for more information, to which they said I should come down and give it a try. I asked my fiance if I’d be okay going down there on my own, and he seemed to think that I would. I was still scared despite having his vote of confidence. The attention that one woman can get in a place swamped with a bunch of men can be intimidating.

In the end, I decided to make the short drive out to their dojo to investigate whether or not this was something I could get on board with.

The dojo was very traditional. I was greeted by two evil looking chinese guardian lions on the outside, and four very quiet people on the inside slapping the shit out of their bodies. They were warming up. I jumped in. The dojo had a nice vibe to it. Wooden chinese style shutters. No a/c. No punishing fluorescent lights. There were paintings of various Wudang masters all around us. There was a huge imposing statue on the far end. The training session was oddly quiet. I felt like I could genuinely hear myself think in there. My workday melted away. I came back for another session. And then another. And another.

I had just successfully added meaningful physical activity to my weekly routine. And besides, how many people do you know have a bunch of old Wudang masters watching them workout for six hours a week? I know at least one now!

I’m by no means near the end of my never ending pursuit of the hidden. As I’ve come to find out in my practice of Bagua Zhang there is so much I don’t know about myself. There are so many variables to consider that I was never aware of–for example, making deliberate movements requires an intense control over your consciousness. I feel like in the practice of this art I’m somehow interfacing with a part of myself I never knew. In the previous iterations of myself I always regarded myself to be an intellectual. For some reason though, while Bagua is an intense and difficult workout I have been excelling at it. Much to my surprise. I never knew I had this much belly fire. Maybe I actually have the capacity to be physically “intellectual.” Might as well give it the old college try while I’m young.

I mean what’s the worst that can happen? I develop a lifelong practice that will prove everything I used to think about myself wrong?

Conclusion

Part of figuring out where we want to go in life has to do with finding our own answers. Like a math problem we’re often given the answer first. Curiosity for what hides behind the value of X, is the why, the how, and the means to arrive at the desired answer. Sometimes you don’t get it the first or second time. Sometimes you don’t even get it the third time around. Pursuing wonder is what drives the working initiate forward into the places he or she wants to go. Losing that sense of wonder takes them away from it.

Reyn til Rûna!

 

 

 

 

Rûna Goes Meta