Monday, 6 February 2012

"It's a great burden being holier than everyone else, but I enjoy it"

I wrote about a week ago "Hello universe, please give me something to look forward to..." and the next day, I was invited to a tai chi retreat. A friend had booked the trip with someone who hurt their back at the last minute, so it was all paid for and sorted, I just had to turn up!
Strangely enough, for anyone who believes in coincidences, about a year ago I had decided I wanted to learn tai chi and looked into courses; hadn't booked anything and eventually forgot about it. Then recently a friend  started going to a class nearby, and I had also noticed funny little references to tai chi around the place which got me thinking about it again. And then I was offered it on a plate!
Now, when I was looking into courses, I was paying special care to find people teaching tai chi as a martial art, avoiding as much of the "hippy shit" (as I call it) as possible. Of course, tai chi originated in China as a martial art, but I think as it spread west and got mixed up with our own and various other cultures, it became kind of diluted with our own ideas of stress relief. I suppose now if someone mentions tai chi, most people will picture groups of middle aged women on hilltops a la Calendar Girls and won't realise that the movements are actually fighting poses (or rather defensive poses, but I won't go into that in detail... check out Wikipedia if you want to know more:'ai_chi_ch'uan )
So, I've just arrived back from the retreat. I feel like a different person to the stressed out, tired, ill one who left for the hotel on Friday. In fact, as we were driving away, I had the strangest feeling that I'd left part of me there: not a part of me that I missed though, a part of me that had been so wound up I ended up in bed for 3 days with a migraine!
But when I woke up this morning, instead of finding myself floating carelessly out of sleep in a relaxed haze, I felt angry. Why was this?
Now, I'm not in any way being ungrateful for my free spa weekend! Let's get that straight right here: I couldn't be more grateful, it was a beautiful and incredibly relaxing experience... but this was (to a large extent) despite the retreat organisers and not because of them, and it's got me thinking...
You know what, I prefer people who are looking for answers to people who think they have the answers.
The owner of the hotel was a rich businessman who apparently used to own a number of nightclubs in London, now owns one, but never visits it. He had a calm demeanour which I later determined to be more passive aggressive than simply passive. He taught the tai chi and took the meditation session on the second night. He told us many interesting and eye-opening lessons about the principals behind tai chi, and to begin with I liked his no-nonsense teaching style. But as the lesson went on, I began to doubt his motives for pulling complete beginners up in front of the rest of the class, watching like an eagle, correcting every move and letting us sit down only when we had it right. Talking to other members of the group, half of them were scared of him and desperate to get it right so they wouldn't be told off... even though the words coming from his mouth were 'you need to loose the ego, there is no aspect of competition here, you shouldn't care if you get it wrong' his actions were telling us quite the opposite!
By lunchtime we had been concentrating and practicing the form for three hours, and were all starving. The soup and salad were tasty, but didn't really hit the spot, especially after the small portion of chicken and brown rice we'd had for dinner the night before. When my friend and I went to the office we found the boss sitting with some salad next to his receptionist who was tucking into a Macdonalds. My friend expressed jealousy at her box of chips and I agreed.
Back in the hall, boss walks in and says 'Who here smokes, put your hand up' (a number of sheepish hands go into the air) 'Who drinks?' (more hands) 'Who eats unhealthy food?' (most hands in the room reach apologetically for the ceiling).
'What's the point in training in self defence if you're doing these things? You don't need to worry about someone else killing you, you're doing it yourself. You might as well be hitting yourself repeatedly in the face with a brick' I think later... was that a dig about the chips comment?
That night, after a tiny portion of chilli and more brown rice, the whole group get together and do their best to polish off the hotel's entire wine cellar. Someone makes a trip to a nearby shop and on their return, tips a carrier bag of crisps, sweets and chocolate onto the table. Half of us dig into it, the other half are outside having a fag. I think to myself 'Mmmmm, it's like hitting myself repeatedly in the face with a tasty, tasty brick.'
Rewind back a couple of hours. My friend and I are taking part in a 'sacred earth meditation' which involved dancing around for five minutes, standing in a circle and jiggling up and down for five minutes, repeating this twice more, then lying flat on our backs for ten minutes, followed by hugging the rest of the group one by one and promising to look after our earth. All this was done to the most horrendous 'hippy shit' soundtrack: bad trance music with a voice over the top spouting empty sermons on loving our earth and walking hand in hand with our fellow humans. I think to myself 'Well, this is like my worst nightmare but I'm here, might as well enjoy it' and I throw myself into the activity, dancing like I dance when I'm alone in my bedroom, jiggling with vigour, shaking every part of my body and concentrating on loosening up all those muscles I'd had tensed for so long...
Boss spends the dance sessions moving slowly around the room doing a bad Dad dance. During the jiggling session he breaks off into the centre of the circle and walks slowly round, watching everyone. He heads towards me and I say to myself 'If you're coming to tell me I'm jiggling wrong I'm going to be angry.' But he just looks at me and moves on.
When the meditation is over we have to sit in a circle and, one by one, speak for two minutes about our experience. There's no way I'm going to lie and talk about my incredible emotional experience when I just didn't have one. I say I love to dance, I do it a lot and I love dancing in nightclubs: I love the trance state you can get into when you just dance and forget everything around you, how you can just let the music fill you up and go with it, but that personally I have trouble letting go completely if I don't like the music. I said that the jiggling was really good for loosening up, but that all I could think about was how much the blood was rushing to my fingertips, and that I do a bit of meditation at home, and always find that fantastic for emptying your head and relaxing. He doesn't seem best pleased but he just says 'Ok' and moves on around the circle. Most of the group say exactly what you'd expect... 'I really enjoyed it, it was nice.'
When it's the Boss' time to speak, he says 'I like this sacred earth meditation' and then just goes on about the hippy shit speakers and where we can hear more if we want. He says he has done this meditatation in the past with a group of over a hundred. My friend jokingly says 'Sounds like a rave!' and I laugh. He stops in his tracks, turns to us seriously and asks my friend to repeat herself. We both say 'sounds like a rave' and people laugh. This doesn't go down well. He turns away from us, addresses the rest of the group and starts spouting about how there's much more to this mediataion than the contrived dancing you might do in a nightclub. Me and my friend just look at each other.
Putting aside the fact that it's just insulting to be dismissed and picked on it this way, my problem with his reaction to our telling the truth about the less-than-life-changing experience is that he's not allowing for difference of character. I totally understand that for half of the group, this meditation was a new, eye-opening way of relaxing. Some of these people would never have been to a nightclub, never experienced that incredible sensation of moving as one part of a huge surging crowd. Some of them would never have meditated in their lives. Some of them would have loved the music. For some people there, it truly was a life changing experience, and I think that's absolutely brilliant for them. All we were saying was that personally, for us, we have found other things that work better, and we were having a bit of a laugh!
I don't go back to the tai chi class the next day. Surprisingly, I'm not too fussed about being picked at and used as a self-righteous, passive aggressive example of what he sees as 'wrong'. I may have the wrong end of the stick here but it certainly felt like he was trying to tell us that we don't understand, that he knows how to become 'zen' and that we weren't doing it right.
Instead, I head to the pool and sauna (which I have to myself for the whole morning), and spend my time swimming in the bath-warm water, watching the ripples form and dissipate, contemplating energy and emotions and friendship and togetherness, writing, reading, and just quieting myself. After that I felt like I was walking on air.
Now tell me that's not a better meditation than standing in a circle jiggling whilst being watched by a creepy man with authority issues.

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