The perfect antidote

In a few hours, I’ll leave the comfortable container of the life I have built and enter into a silent meditation retreat. It’s the formal style of retreat known as sesshin in Zen practice, my first time doing this type of retreat. I’ve done silent retreats, long retreats, and retreats where meditation is the focus – but never this formal style, and never for this length of time.

As with most retreats, and especially silent retreats, I am experiencing profound anxiety about what’s to come.

These retreats are no joke! 8-10 hours of seated meditation a day, formal meal practice, sleeping in an unfamiliar place, navigating the minefield of my dietary needs… it’s a lot! I know I can do it, but I know it will be uncomfortable at several points. There always seems to be a moment for me in meditation retreats where I’m sitting on the cushion and my inner child is screaming at the top of their lungs, ready to run into the forest and never come back.

Honestly, the thing that is gnawing at me most is the lack of work time.

This is a week off from running my business, seeing my patients, being the architect of my life on Earth. The understanding is that while you are in the sesshin retreat, even when there are break times, you’re not going online, you’re not engaging in work, in fact they ask you not even to read or journal. The intention is to keep 100% of your focus on being in your body, in your breath, in your experience.

Yikes!

My work is a massive, massive part of my life. My business partner is my life partner. The practices I use and teach at work are the very same practices I use in my own life. I wake up thinking about Chinese medicine, I go to sleep thinking about Chinese medicine. I ENJOY working on my business, planning, analyzing, understanding, connecting. And right now, of course, I’m also intellectually engaged with my classical Chinese studies, among other things. I have built the life and the work that feeds me, challenges me and keeps me engaged.

To give that up, even for a week, feels painful! And that’s exactly why I have to do it.

Work is not life. Even my home life is not really life. Not all of it. There is a whole part of the human experience that we so often ignore or at least minimize. Our engagement with our deepest selves, the reality of our existence and, yes, the reality of our eventual non-existence. The real “meaning” or truth of what it is we are doing, and why, and what it all means. The realm of the spiritual, the deep philosophical, the beyond, the mystery. Most of us ignore it. I know I try.

So, this type of retreat is the perfect antidote for me.

For my infection with the hustle always-up culture that I was born and raised in. For my disembodiment/dissociation and the traumas that created and sustain it. For my secret concern that all that is important about me is in what I create or produce. It is the antidote to the culture that makes me feel only as valuable as I am economically valuable.

And as a person recently diagnosed with autism, I am looking at this particular retreat differently than in the past. I see that I have been attracted to the monastic environment and monastic life in part because it is quiet, calm, soothing, peaceful. A silent retreat means no forced socializing, no weird looks if I want to wander off on my own or just stare in to space feeling the world around me. It means space without flashing lights and loud noises and offensive smells and people always trying to steal my attention and centeredness.

It is a break from the need to mask myself.

So, while my inner child is kicking and screaming, begging me not to go, I know I must. I know I will. And I know on the flipside I will emerge more integrated, more prepared for what’s to come, and more joyful about the beauty of existence.

Remind me of this when I forget in five minutes.

Getting serious about learning Classical Chinese

I went to school at NCNM/NUNM in Portland, where classical Chinese medicine thinking & classical Chinese language were at the root of the curriculum. This meant that I picked up classical Chinese medical terms just by being in my classes, doing my assignments, and learning from my mentors. I even did some very rough “translations” for class assignments. But, I never really buckled down and tried to learn more vocabulary, or to understand the grammar.

Fortunately, I didn’t lose my chance to learn the language by graduating from NUNM. We are all so lucky to live a time where engaging, reliable remote education is a possibility. After leaving her teaching position at NUNM, Sabine Wilms, my friend and mentor, began offering her profound teachings online in multiple ways. I’ve just begun the first phase of her Triple Crown program, and I’m committed to seeing all three courses through.

Why am I studying Classical Chinese?

But why – oh why – would I subject myself to this? This is not modern Mandarin. I’m not going to be left with the skills to order in a restaurant should I travel to China. Nor will I be able to read modern commentaries, research studies and texts about Chinese medicine written today! It’s notoriously difficult to learn, taking significant amounts of time investment. And, to be clear, I personally struggle mightily with learning languages other than English – a fate that befalls many Americans.

So, why?

  1. Deeper engagement with the classical texts I use every day in clinic. I rely on the Neijing, Shennong bencao jing, Shanghan lun and Jingui yaolue , and therefore I rely on others’ translations of them. I’m lucky to live in an era where good translations exist, but even so, having more direct access to these texts – or at least having the capacity to comprehend the decisions the translators made – will be empowering.
  2. Overall increase in my brain’s flexibility – pathway to further language study. While this particular form of Chinese is not used frequently today, successfully overcoming a limitation I’ve nursed all my life may well open me up to further success. I definitely intend to learn to speak the modern language at some point, this certainly cannot hurt.
  3. Something about working with characters seems to enhance my understanding of concepts. As I mentioned, we worked with the classical medical language in school. Several professors were interested in etymological investigation of ancient characters, and nearly all the professors offered their own translations of texts. The more I dug into these while I was in school, the better I learned the topics I was studying. In the last couple of months, I’ve been working with some characters related to a case I’m working on and it’s already been useful. I’m not really sure why this works, but it’s almost as if while I’m practicing writing a character, or looking up its multiple meanings, my mind is engaged with the concept the character represents in novel ways. Hard to explain.
  4. Self cultivation in multiple ways. I don’t handwrite much in English, much less in Chinese. Part of Sabine’s course involves repeatedly writing characters. This is requiring a tremendous amount of focus from me – not to mention some hand-eye coordination I don’t regularly engage. The effect of all that concentration has already been profound. It’s like meditation. It does require a lot of time and patience, though, so I can only do short stints at a time.

Overall, it just feels like the right thing to do – benefits or no. Something about it calls to me.

What’s interfered with my studies in the past?

When I was thinking about joining up with this class again, I asked myself this question. I don’t want to waste anybody’s time or money, so it’s important to understand what barriers I encountered in the past so that I might avoid them in the present. Ultimately, I think my past failures were due to two things. First, I have just been too overloaded with other work. And by work, I don’t just mean patients and running the clinic, but also significant efforts in my personal & family life, as well as work on side businesses. ALL of those items have become less intense in recent months, and that reduction looks permanent.

The other reason is a bit more complicated, and personal. In short, I’ve needed to do some important psychological and spiritual work this last couple of years. One major effect of these efforts has been the liberation of a great deal of energy, attention & enthusiasm. I had been quite weighed down by a number of things, and while the work will always be ongoing, I find myself with more capacity than I’ve felt for many years.

How am I approaching my studies?

As I said, I’m starting the first course of the Triple Crown program with Sabine Wilms. I’m also a member of her Imperial Tutor membership group, which gives access to interesting cultural and historical information, as well as plenty of opportunities to learn more about classical Chinese language. This course runs 13 weeks, and has a pretty significant homework component. There are students from all over the world and of all kinds of backgrounds and experience levels. One of the real joys of remote learning!

Sabine gives us pretty strong structures to work with, but of course I have to adapt them to my schedule and working style. I’m doing the majority of my homework from Friday to Sunday, using the other days to memorize characters with my flashcards and read supplemental materials and the online forum associated with the course. My goal is to engage with that weeks’ vocabulary & passage(s) daily.

I’m using a lot of tools and support materials to help me, including:

  • Pleco dictionary with all the awesome add-ons, an incredibly powerful dictionary in my pocket! I do have three paper dictionaries, but they are massive and challenging to use. Pleco is the winner and champion. I do love Wenlin, too, but I find I use Pleco more and more as I go on.
  • Devonthink, my favorite database software. I have a special database devoted to my language studies. As it grows and develops, I’ll share more about it. I keep all of my homework and class materials there, but am also building a database of all the characters, passages and grammar rules I know, interlinking and enriching them as I go.
  • My trusty iPad Pro & Apple Pencil. While it’s important to me to do handwriting with ink and paper during my studies, I also enjoy what the digital tools bring. Using programs like Zenbrush and PDFExpert, I’m able to freehand characters or use digital character practice sheets, infinitely erasing & reusing them. The combination works.
  • The text for the class is Classical Chinese for Everyone : A Guide for Absolute Beginners, by Van Norden. I also have a number of books about Chinese calligraphy, characters and grammar, which I consult when Van Norden & Sabine aren’t quite getting me to full understanding.

We’re just in the first week, but I’m already feeling more on top of it than I’ve ever felt studying any language. What a difference a couple of years of intensive self-care makes!

Throwback

I take walks often. It’s how I process, how I generate new ideas, and how I shed a bad mood. I’d say that the simple act of walking is the most vital pillar in my self care stack.

Running a close second, however, is writing.

When it comes to thinking something through, planning anything or expressing my feelings – writing is the best tool I have. So, in the very earliest days of the Internet, I was all over any software or service that involved written communication in some way. Geocities and other early blogging platforms, Livejournal, all of the text focused social networks, text-based BBS communities, in all these spots I felt at home.

At some point, writing became about making money. My writing became “content” meant to rank me in the search engines, even if I didn’t have a real reason to care about that. It’s ingrained in me as a contemporary small business owner and a person who has had to hustle for most of my life. But, this ended up killing the very reason I was writing in the first place – to process, to learn more, to understand, and to share all of that with others.

So, despite the fact that I have other websites where the focus of my writing is professional, even commercial, here I give myself a break from all of that. Here I am writing for myself, for my own purposes. And if you find something useful in it, all the better.

Here’s a short, incomplete list of the things I’m likely to write about here:

  • Chinese medicine including Classical Chinese medicine, Chinese herbs, Dong style acupuncture and pulse diagnosis
  • Chinese language & culture, especially of the Han / pre-Han
  • Study techniques, memory & pedagogy
  • Queer theory, reflections on gender & sexuality
  • Neurodivergence, autism, ADHD and the paradigms that help (or hurt) our understanding of these
  • Nature, animals, plants, herbs, permaculture
  • Philosophy as a discipline, particularly epistemology, philosophy of science, philosophy of medicine and novel environmental philosophies such as Deep Ecology
  • Wise use of technology, especially the use of digital technologies in organizational development
  • Business, especially small business, ethical business, ethical employment
  • Marketing in all its many permutations

Let’s see where this goes.