Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Eight Pieces of Brocade (八段錦): "Riding Horse, Drawing Bow to Shoot Eagle"

When I was a young lieutenant in the 82nd Airborne Division, I purchased a book called The Kung Fu Exercise Book by Michael Minick, published in 1974.

The book contains a series of exercises which it explains on page 9 are derived from the "Ancient Art Silk Weaving Exercises" and which the author says are part of a system which is far more than just exercise:
The system I am going to describe is far more than just a pattern of exercises. It is an integral part of Chinese medicine. Traditional Chinese medicine's weapons against ill health are few in number, but they are extraordinarily effective. They include acupuncture, moxibustion (a form of therapy in which acupuncture points are generally heated instead of needled), remedial massage, herbal remedies, and, most basically, exercise. 7 - 8.
The ancient art exercises described in the book, the author says, are surprisingly easy to do, can be performed by people of any age, do not require physical exertion, can be performed almost anywhere, and can be performed in as little as ten minutes if necessary (12 - 13). Most importantly, the book explains, "these exercises put one into contact with one's inner life force" -- the Prana or Chi or Hei:
Regardless of semantic differences, few dispute the presence of this force within us. Anyone who does either the Ancient Art Exercises or Yoga for a while will become aware of it. With increased experience, he may be able to move this energy around his body. Advanced practitioners can often will it to flow into their hands or down their legs; they have control over each individual bodily organ just as the famous fakirs of India have when they stick pins through their bodies or stop their hearts. There is only one way such control can be gained -- through contact with their life force, or Ch'i. We are not suggesting that the exercises presented here will make you capable of lying on a bed of nails -- such feats take years of special work -- but you can expect to be put in touch with your own internal energy. 12.
While I wasn't particularly interested in being able to stick pins through my body, there was something discussed later in the book which caught my attention, during a section in which the author, after pointing out the often-made generalization that modern western medicine is usually more interested in finding problems and manipulating the environment versus traditional medicine including Chinese medicine is more interested in assessing and maintaining healthy systems and focusing on improving the body systems rather than altering the external environment, described some basic indications that the body systems are in tune and functioning properly. One of these indicators we can look at, the book says, is our sleep pattern:
Do you sleep soundly? A man or woman with the aforementioned energy sleeps soundly and deeply, and wakes completely refreshed after six hours' sleep. Moreover, such a person falls asleep minutes after his head hits the pillow, regardless of place or circumstances. Talking in one's sleep is an unfavorable sign, as are violent, disturbing dreams. Finally, one should be able to awaken at a preset time by simply visualizing the hour to get up immediately before going to sleep. The inability to meet these fundamental conditions indicates a basic health problem that needs attention. 18 - 19.
That caught my attention because sleep (or the lack of it) is a constant issue in the types of training I was involved in at the time. 

Not long after I got the book and started to work on some of the exercises, my unit went out to the field for an extended training event (back in those days we didn't come back in for weekends, either). Imagine my surprise when I set my wristwatch alarm for a very precise wake-up time very early in the morning well before the break of day, and woke up on my own, the next morning, two minutes before the alarm was scheduled to go off!

I have not been particularly fastidious about performing these exercises over the years, but I can say that this ability to wake up a few minutes before my alarm is set to go off continues to manifest itself (off and on), depending on the level of these types of activities that I incorporate into my daily routine. 

Now one thing that is interesting to consider is the question of exactly "who or what" is waking you up in this example. 

Obviously, it is not your conscious mind that is waking you up, since when you are asleep your conscious mind is pretty much not conscious (in most ordinary definitions of consciousness or unconsciousness).

Is it then your "subconscious" mind that wakes you up, right when you know you needed to wake up?

How does one's subconscious keep track of the time and know when it is time for you to wake up? Is the "subconscious" really "conscious" while you are sleeping?

Or could this be an example of the "higher self" (given various names in the ancient texts and traditions of humanity)? Modern conventional paradigms of mind and consciousness which deny the possibility of the existence of a "higher self" or "supreme self" are forced to find a way that the unconscious or subconscious mind can perform all the sometimes quite incredible feats that people sometimes demonstrate, but as we may have an opportunity to explore in future posts, there are times in which individuals have demonstrated knowledge which comes to them in a state of non-ordinary consciousness which neither they nor their "subconscious" could possibly have known through any means within the conventional paradigm.

And here's another blog post from about one year ago which touches upon the same general idea, and which contains a helpful quotation from Alvin Boyd Kuhn on the subject.

I would suggest that the ability to wake up a few minutes before your alarm clock borders on the "difficult to explain" (although not impossible to explain). Situations such as the near-death experiences described by persons whose brains were being monitored and whose brain scans during major surgery showed absolutely no activity are much more difficult to explain (see for example the famous NDE discussed in this previous post, which actually took place right around the same time or just a year or two before the field exercise where I first discovered that the exercises from the Kung Fu Exercise Book seemed to be "working" for me in terms of waking up when I needed to). If someone is registering no brain-wave activity during a certain period of time, then it is difficult to attribute knowledge that they appear to have obtained during that period of time to the "subconscious mind."

If you are interested in the exercises in the system described in that 1974 book, they are actually a part of an ancient system of exercises known as the Eight Pieces of Brocade (a "brocade" is a treasured piece of fine embroidered fabric), or the 八段錦.

This set of three symbols represents a symbol for the number "eight," a symbol for a "piece," and a symbol for embroidery or brocade, and is pronounced ba duan jin in Mandarin, and baat dyun gam in Cantonese*. The video embedded above shows one version of the ba duan jin available on YouTube, although you can also find many others.

One of my favorites from the series described in the book (and shown in the above video between about the 4:30 mark and the 6:30 mark) has always been the exercise which author Michael Minick refers to as "Riding Horse, Using Bow and Arrow to Shoot Eagle" (pages 75 and following). You can see that this exercise is referred to by a variety of related names: on this wikipedia entry, for example, it is called "Drawing the Bow to Shoot the Eagle / Hawk / Vulture."

Not only is this a beautiful and very satisfying exercise to make a part of your daily practice, but it also seems to have a celestial aspect (as do many, many facets of the Chinese martial arts -- see for example the discussions here and here and here).

There is a constellation which is traditionally envisioned as "drawing a bow" and "riding a horse," and what is more it is positioned very close to the majestic figure of an Eagle in the heavens: the constellation Sagittarius, positioned at the base of the glorious column of the Milky Way, and currently very visible along with the mighty Scorpion in the southern sky (for viewers in the non-tropical latitudes of the northern hemisphere it would generally be towards the southern horizon) in the hours after sunset.

Below is a screen-shot from the open-source planetarium app Stellarium, showing the Scorpion and the Eagle and Sagittarius (this one is unlabeled, but the ones below it will add outlines):

If you go out to see it, you should be able to find the glorious Scorpion, and even see the delightful "Cat's Eyes," as well as view the most dramatic portion of the Milky Way band, rising up between Scorpio and Sagittarius.

You should also be able to spot the bright little "teapot" portion of Sagittarius (can you find it in the un-marked image above?). The "teapot" also looks like a grasshopper or a "locust," and it figures as a locust in many scriptures of what have come to be labeled the Old and New Testaments, including the events described in Revelation chapter 9.

Below is the same screen-shot, this time with the outlines of the Scorpion and the "teapot" section of Sagittarius marked in green, and the outline of the Eagle in red (I think the Eagle looks almost "bat-like" when you find him in the actual night sky -- his wings are actually quite a bit larger than they appear in this image, because Stellarium "curves" the stars to simulate the wrapping-around of the actual night sky, which sometimes distorts the constellations a little depending on where they are on the screen):

Now, the side of that "teapot" that is pointing towards the Scorpion (and towards the Milky Way) is actually part of the "bow and arrow" that Sagittarius the Archer is holding: can you envision it? The "teapot" is the brightest and most-noticeable portion of the Sagittarius constellation, but it is not actually the entire constellation. Below is the outline of Sagittarius (in blue) as envisioned by H. A. Rey:

Finally, although I usually do not place much value on the flowery artistic renditions of the constellations that are sometimes included in planetarium functions or in some books about the stars, here is the same screen-shot with an artist's rendition of the mythical figures belonging to each constellation:

Such flowery artistic renditions are practically useless for actually finding a constellation in the night sky. However, in this particular case, I have included it here because it shows how Sagittarius is often traditionally envisioned: as a Centaur bearing a bow, preparing to launch an arrow. And, you can see that he is located very near to and directly below the Eagle of Aquila.

It is very possible, and in fact in my opinion it is very likely, that the Ancient Art Exercise of "Riding Horse, Using Bow and Arrow to Shoot Eagle" in the Eight Pieces of Brocade is referencing this celestial series of figures.

Thus, when we perform this and other ancient physical exercises, we are consciously or unconsciously attuning the motions of our body to the cycles of the heavens and the cosmos.

I hope that you will have the opportunity to go out and see the beautiful Milky Way galaxy rising up between Scorpio and Sagittarius this week (or indeed this time of year), as well as the majestic Eagle flying above them.

I also hope that if it is at all possible, you might try incorporating some of the Eight Pieces of Brocade  into your own daily practice (although I am not a doctor, and make no claims as to its medical benefits, although I personally have no doubt that it is beneficial in many ways).

And, if you begin to find that you "wake yourself up" one or two minutes before the alarm is scheduled to get you up in the morning, you might also ask yourself just who or what could be responsible for that!


* The word translated as "piece" in English (as in "Eight Pieces of Brocade") is actually a "quantifying unit," used prior to nouns and generally appropriate to a certain category of objects, items, people or animals -- there are different quantifying units for different categories (if you ask for "one glass of beer," for example, you will use a specific "quantifying unit" which we would translate into English as "glass of" or "cup of," and this would be a different word than the word you would use if you wished to purchase eight ink-pens, or "eight 'units of' ink-pen"). You can see some of the different quantifying units listed here -- about the seventh down on the list you will find the word and the character used for the category of nouns or objects which "can stand or spread," and this is the word used for quantifying pieces of brocade.