The MWS Podcast: Episode 9, John Bolwell

In this episode T’ai Chi instructor John Bolwell gives us an overview of this popular martial art: it’s origins, the benefits of doing it and how it relates to the Middle Way. If you would like to see a short video of John performing one of the more common T’ai Chi forms then click here.


MWS Podcast 9: John Bolwell as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_9_John_Bolwell

Previous podcasts:

Episode 8: Peter Goble on his career as a nurse and his work as a Buddhist Chaplain.
Episode 7: The author Stephen Batchelor on his work with photography and collage.
Episode 6: Iain McGilchrist, author of the Master and his Emissary.
Episode 5: Julian Adkins on introducing MWP to his meditation group in Edinburgh
Episode 4: Daren Dewitt on Nonviolent communiction.
Episode 3: Vidyamala Burch on her new book “Mindfulness for Health”.
Episode 2: Norma Smith on why she joined the society, art, agnosticism and metaphor.
Episode 1 : Robert M. Ellis on the skill of critical thinking.

About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

15 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast: Episode 9, John Bolwell

  1. Thanks for this, John and Barry. I’m not a regular T’ai Chi practitioner, though I have tried it a few times. I was interested in a couple of the ideas in this discussion, though.

    One was the likening of the balance between Yin and Yang with the Middle Way. I think that depends very much on how Yin-Yang is interpreted. If you take Yin-Yang to be a balance in nature itself (which often seems to be the Daoist approach), then this would just be a form of naturalism in which we take an understanding of ‘nature’ that we have formed as a metaphysical principle. If we do this, the ‘balance’ would be an assumed external one we are trying to copy rather than one we are experiencing in our own judgements. On the other hand, if you take Yin and Yang to be representing extremes of view about ourselves, then finding a way between them that takes positive elements of each is very much in harmony with the Middle Way. Obviously, if you are approaching this whole topic from the practical point of view of T’ai Chi practice then you are more likely to be seeking the balance in your own experience. But appeals to the balance of nature can easily be metaphysically appropriated too: for example to maintain fixed class roles or gender roles in society. Daoist influence does not seem to have done much to change the rigidities of Chinese society before the effective arrival of Western influence.

    The other point I was interested in was that of Chi. I was surprised to hear it likened to duende and elan – but if that’s how we should understand the term then perhaps we can think of Chi as integrated energy suffusing our whole body. If so then I’d guess that there’s nothing mysterious about it from a scientific point of view: it’s just an experience of the totality of our physical energy, using the right hemisphere without interference from the left.

    Previously I have identified Chi much more with an experience I often have in meditation – of energy rising up the spine. In Hindu tradition they talk about the Kundalini. In that case it seems more like a specific experience of a particular kind of physical energy when the body is in a relaxed and temporarily integrated state.

    1. Hi Robert
      I found those ideas interesting too and your interpretation of them makes sense to me.

      I’ve been practising T’ai Chi for nearly three years now (with John occasionally as my instructor) and I don’t know if this is the experience of other T’ai practitioners out there, but for me these sort of questions rarely if at all arise whilst attending classes. I recognise that for some there can be a certain mystical perception of the practice but for me it’s just a great opportunity to not be so immersed in my thoughts and really spend some time in awareness of my body.

      I find the term “moving meditation” a very appropriate way of describing T’ai Chi or Qigong. There seem to be so many things in play at any one time, the appropriate balance, the position of every part of the body, movement, the relation to what’s around you, control of breathing etc,. that it’s actually quite difficult to be anywhere else, figuratively speaking. It’s also often a wonderful feeling when you are working together in a group and everybody is coordinating their movements with everybody else. It feels like you could in some way be a part of a flock of starlings in flight, if that makes sense. Although I invariably feel refreshed, grounded and dare I say more “integrated” after a session, I don’t feel I’m overly hooked on the idea of “getting better” (which maybe just as well!). The instructors I’ve had have so far have managed to foster a nice balance between gently moving things forward but keeping the atmosphere unhurried and relaxed. This suits me .

      I’ve tried lots of integrative practices in my life, the majority of which I haven’t maintained. There are three or four though that have stuck and become part of my life and I feel T’ai Chi is now one of them.

      1. Hi, watching the video posted on here and listening to the podcast has inspired me to carry on teaching myself Qigong, I have a DVD especially adapted for the elderly where it is very well presented. There is an evening class in Qigong run weekly in our local community centre, rather expensive, unfortunately I don’t like going out in the evening.

      2. I enjoyed this interview, the relationship of the two men and the steady flow of communication throughout said lots for me about balance and the movement of energies.

        I also practice a variant of qi gong primarily as a valuable method of meditation: the technique I’ve learned (partly from reading and partly from an instructor) is zhan zhuang or “Standing Like A Tree” – it’s a sequence of slightly varied standing postures, each variation gives rise to a subtle shift in the experience of energy flowing through the organism, including all the sense organs, of which the mind is one, and its thoughts. The detail is enormously rich and complex, and can’t easily be put into words.

        It might be thought that the relaxation necessary for meditation can’t be achieved in the erect or standing position, but this is demonstrably not so, although the body takes time to reach that level of alignment with the earth, and within its own structures, to support itself with no effort at all. All postures (including sitting and lying) involve the musculature reaching a state in which the opposing contracture and relaxation of long muscles (tone) is perfectly balanced. If all muscles were relaxed we should be like a toneless jelly.

        It was good to hear qi gong affirmed as a worthwhile method of meditation (as it is by many reputable sources, but seldom in Buddhist teachings, although walking meditation has its advocates). I sometimes think that a certain dogmatism and practice rigidity has arisen around the posture of meditation in traditional Buddhism, which is one of my reasons for exiting it for a more open, investigative and adventurous approach, such as is offered by migglism.

  2. A very interesting interview, and so was reading all of your comments. I have been thinking about trying Qigong, but haven’t been able to yet. But now I’m really looking forward to getting round to it!

    Peter, the “standing like a tree” meditation sounds very interesting, I know you have mentioned it in a few comments, are you planning to elaborate further on it if you do blog about meditation? I’d be interested in reading more about it, if you can find the words, and ways in how you feel it has been beneficial for you.

  3. I’ll say more about “standing like a tree” next week in the blog that is planned for Wednesday. I’ll say a little more about the technique, but my main grouse is about what sometimes seems to me like the fetishism surrounding sitting meditation, based on the fetishism of the seated Buddha.

    A man sitting on his arse is a man sitting on his arse. And he’s not wearing shoes. Or socks!

    After all, sitting in the floor is what people do when they don’t have furniture, and lots of people do it still in far-off lands. It’s not special, esoteric or necessary to meditation; or let’s say I’m not persuaded that it is.

    Glad to have your lively interest, and I’ll be happy to share what little I know from personal experience.

    1. I’d like to stick up for sitting on the floor in meditation, which I think is the best option, for entirely practical reasons that have nothing to do with attachment to tradition. Of course it’s only the best option for those for whom it is physically comfortable.

      The reason for sitting on the floor (not necessarily cross-legged; one can alternatively kneel as I do) is to have a low centre of gravity, to be able to relax more of the muscles of one’s legs and pelvis than would be possible standing, and to be able to maintain an upright but relaxed position of the spine. In my experience, and I believe that of lots of other meditators, an upright posture of the spine allows energy to travel up and down the spine more freely (by ‘energy’ here I mean an internal sensation of it), in a way that I find greatly supports my concentration. An upright spine also allows openness of the chest, which seems to be connected (again in my experience and that of others) to a sense of emotional openness.

      I’m sure that standing meditation may be very useful, and I look forward to hearing more about it from Peter. It may also be the best option for Peter and others. However, for any beginner who is physically capable of sitting on the floor comfortably I am going to continue to recommend that they try it out as the best available option.

      1. I do endorse the idea that what suits a meditator best, is what is best for that meditator. I do challenge the notion that there is a notional ‘best best’ that transcends what’s best for the individual though. That might not be what you’re saying, Robert, but that’s how I interpret your recommendation of sitting as “the best available option”.

        I want to challenge some of your other ideas too. The centre of gravity, as I understand it, doesn’t have anything to do with it’s proximity to the floor. The centre of gravity is ‘ the point through which the resultant of the gravitational forces on a body always acts’, and this can be anywhere, near the floor or remote from it. It’s just as possible (and in my experience easier, with practice) to identify the centre of gravity while in the standing position, because the body aligns itself with gravitational forces automatically through a series of small, subtle movements, constantly adjusting itself as the body moves as it breathes. Such whole-body movements are, I find, lost to conscious awareness by sitters, who are taught to concentrate on movements of the belly, or sensations around the nostrils and upper lip.

        I also contest your suggestion that muscles in the legs and pelvis are more relaxed in the sitting position. All postures (in a living organism) rely on the balance of reciprocal contraction and relaxation of long muscles attached to the bony skeleton. Whatever posture is assumed, or whatever posture ensures from alignment with gravity, through the ‘centre of gravity’, is maintained through this tonal balance (described as muscle tone). No properly aligned posture, therefore, is ‘more relaxed’ than another. And as I’ve proposed, all postural variations involve constant tiny adjustments in muscle tone, to accommodate to internal and external changes, including (for example) intestinal movements, the rhythms of the heart and vasculature, and breathing.

        The body is in constant movement, although meditation teachers may suggest that the body is ‘still’. It isn’t. If you’ve ever seen a corpse, you know what a still body looks like, though you’ll never know that stillness in your lifetime, from the inside.

        Alignment of the spine is easily achieved in the erect position, and this is greatly assisted by standing with bare feet. I have marvelled at the elegant and effortless poise of young African women (nursing students) who carry small fragile objects (such as a medicine glass) on their heads as they move about the wards. Even small children perform this remarkable feat with buckets of water, moving across uneven ground and up and down steep inclines. Their spines are in perfect alignment, so that the bucket seems weightless and they carry it with apparent ease.

        Movements of the chest and of the diaphragm are most readily observed in breathing, but neither movement is impaired by standing, or enhanced by sitting. Standing in awareness, one knows that one breathes with the whole body: even the fingers and toes participate in it, albeit subtly. Sitting confers no advantages, or none that I’m aware of.

        I defer entirely, Robert, to your own predilections and preferences in the matter of posture, and I’m not in any sense dogmatically against sitting meditation, which I also engage in (usually on an upright chair); but my grouse is against the convention that sitting meditation is the “right” way, and other methods are “less right”, or weaker options. I do think that, because Buddhism is often represented through an image of the seated Buddha (“a man sitting on his arse”), sitting meditation has achieved ‘de rigeur’ status (as socially obligatory), or as the doctrinal royal road to enlightnment, the sine qua non of practice – not just for Buddhists, but for anyone who is learning to meditate, or aspires to freedom.

        I’m wondering now what to blog about! I may reproduce this comment as a blog, but I want also to write a bit about how the standing like a tree practice works, perhaps I can put that into the resources section?

        This, by the way, is miggling good debate!

      2. Hi Peter,
        I must defer to your obviously much greater experience of standing postures, and what you say about centres of gravity, postures and alignment. I was also forgetting that you’re an experienced nurse, so I guess your knowledge of physiology should also be deferred to! As I’ve never tried meditating in a standing posture, I can’t comment on that as an alternative. I think I was merely expressing the degree of doubt I would need to deal with if I was personally to take up standing meditation after decades of sitting practice.

        I agree that “the best available option” needs to fit the individual case. In the case of meditation this involves adaptation to the body of the person concerned, and in the case of teaching meditation I think it’s important to only teach what one has experienced working in one’s own experience. That’s why I would regard sitting posture as “the best option” that I would advise beginners to try. Perhaps I should really say “the best option in my experience”.

        By the way, I think it would be fine to reproduce some of your comments here, or adapt them, to a blog. The probability is that most of the people who read the blog won’t have read these comments – and even if they have, they will be reproduced in a different context that gives them a different significance.

  4. Hi Peter,

    Although I do sit when I meditate, I agree entirely that it is not necessary. There seems to be a myth that has developed that to sit cross legged is somehow more’spiritual’ than sitting in a chair. The practices that I am familiar with all suggest that meditation is a method of seeing things ‘as they are’ – well, surely that extends to sitting cross legged, lying down, standing – or whatever posture one finds oneself in. Most meditation groups that I have been to (which is not many) provide multiple seating methods, from cushions to chairs, but I have read about centres that will only allow people to sit cross legged as they believe that this is the only way to practice effectively. This makes me a bit angry, are they suggesting that people in wheelchairs cannot meditate as well as people who are not?

    ‘A man sitting on his arse is a man sitting on his arse.’ This sounds like it could be the wise words of a Zen master. :)!

    I sit cross legged for a few reasons, one of which is the very ‘un-buddhist’ desire to challenge my self – which is clearly ‘goal’ orientated. The other main reason is that I have quite a bad posture and slouch, for which I have had physiotherapy. Sitting cross-legged (once had done it for a bit), enables me to sit for quite long periods (only 40 mins or so) comfortably while maintaining awareness of my posture. But of course, standing would have the same effect.

    In relation to the pod-cast, I am not a sporty person and so would like to find something ‘physical’ to do and martial arts seem like an obvious choice. I would definitely give Tai-chi a go at some point in the future.

    Rich

    1. I’m very pleased to have your endorsement, Rich, based on your own experiences of personal practice, and of rather dire and disagreeable experiences in Buddhist settings, some of which I recognise from my own travels. I’ve also experienced the defensiveness, competitiveness and performance anxiety that surrounds discussion of meditation in Buddhist circles, especially amongst men.

      When the Buddhist healthcare chaplaincy endorsing group (of which I’m a member) was discussing the criteria against which chaplaincy applications should be judged, one of the most important was ‘depth of practice’, and sterile debate ensued (I thought it was sterile, I mean) about “how deep is deep?”, and “how do we measure deep?”. In the end, the decisions on “how deep is deep etc?” were farmed out for someone else – “a spiritual leader or appropriately senior member of the applicant’s sangha” – to determine. Score 10 for sitting meditation, Score 6 for walking meditation, Score 2 for off-the-wall alternatives……and tag that candidate as subversive and unruly…….. (that’s my invention, of course).

      As for being goal-oriented, aren’t we migglers right to think that having intentions, and setting objectives, is a wholesome thing to do? I want to build capacity as a meditator, and I’m willing to encourage a sense of increased capacity to emerge, and to honour it, and to let it draw me on and upwards. Nothing wrong there, surely? Even for a Buddhist. If I can notice that my intentions are taking on a tinge of compulsiveness, or weakening other intentions I’ve formed, or commitments I’ve made, then I can relax them, keep moving, keep breathing, and smile.

  5. Hi Peter,

    I have always found the Buddhist aversion to goal orientated practice difficult to understand. I can see that trying to force one state of mind or another is counter productive, but surely every time somebody meditates they are trying to achieve something?

    I can also understand Robert’s position on sitting cross legged, but only when contrasted with other forms of sitting. Kneeling might put unnecessary strain on the, too easily damaged, knees and the modern habit of sitting in chairs contributes to many cases of back pain and poor posture. Of course, some people cannot sit cross legged and it is my belief that the same mental states of meditation can still be achieved. When we talk about standing meditation then I think things are quite different, I suspect that there is not much difference, from a physical health perspective, in cross legged sitting and standing – providing a good posture is maintained with each. Although, I personally feel that it is easier for me to maintain a good posture while sitting cross legged, but I am sure that it is different for others.

    Rich

    1. Hi Rich

      Without tying myself in philosophical knots, I’m at ease with forming intentions for myself and others (in cooperation and consultation with those others), and I’m at ease with opening to the emergent, and letting things be, not trying to push water uphill etc. I would hope that that’s congruent with middle way philosophy, and I’m open to other possibilities of thinking about the matter.

      My thinking is almost always loose, discursive and it often lacks discipline and rigour. I’m unlikely to change fundamentally (it’s possible, I accept) and I would like to be able to think more coherently, and understand other perspectives than my own. At the same time, I value my strengths, and it’s encouraging to have those endorsed and made use of by people like you, Robert, Barry, Norma, Emilie and many others (not listed in rank order!). I’m glad to have found a refuge of sorts in miggling.

      I’m not sure I would use the term ‘good’ about posture. It has connotations of “sit up straight, chin down, shoulders back, head on a piece of invisible string” etc. “Nanny knows best, and don’t wipe your nose on your sleeve, use a handkerchief!”

      I would much prefer Will Johnson’s “alignment”. This is entirely a matter of sensing a wonderful “fit” with the earth, and its gravitational embrace. Just let the body relax, move, and breathe, and it will align itself to the world, physically and mentally free, and weightless in the ‘real’ and metaphorical senses of that word. Trust the body, it ‘knows’ what it wants to do.

  6. Hi Peter,

    By ‘good’ posture, I only mean that which will cause the least physical harm – which will be different for each individual. If Will Johnsons ‘alignment’ will not increase the likelihood of developing irreversible and debilitating back pain then I would say that it constitutes ‘good’ posture, but if I ‘[j]ust let the body relax, move, and breathe’ then I slouch, which causes me upper and lower back pain. Whenever I spend much time not being conscious of my posture (or if I omit the quite long list of phsyio exercises that I have, for a week or two) then I get pain. Backs, like knees, do not heal well once they sustain serious injury, and I am keen not to let that happen. I take the, moderate but long lasting, back pain to be a warning

    Rich

  7. Hi Peter
    This has been a really interesting discussion about posture. I tend to prefer a kneeling posture for meditation. I’ve tried standing a few times but have found it a bit tiring. However, you’ve inspired me to have a go at “Standing like a tree”. One thing that has made me curious is how you described sensing one’s breath with one’s whole body whilst doing it. I’m looking forward to next Wednesday’s blog on some ideas on how to go about it.

    When you say “the body knows what it wants to do”. I agree that my body often has a sense when things are in balance, but like Rich says it also wants to slouch and eat dry roasted peanuts.

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