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There was a period not too long ago where I felt my life was becoming overly rigid. That feeling lingers to this moment. There is “legitimacy” to this rigidity: insomnia, tinnitus and anxiety. Deciding to break out of this rigidity I thought about some of the smaller, safer, easy things I could do. One of these, related to Feldenkrais, was the possibility that even in this rigidity I could stumble upon a new pattern of movement. Also related to was the idea of survival: if you were trapped in such a way that you couldn’t use your dominant side, could you use the non-dominant side to save your life? Martial arts has an emphasis on being able to use both sides of the body, if not to an equal degree but at least to a competent degree on the less coordinated side. There is also the idea of restrictions in Feldenkrais, restrictions that cause you to use your own resourcefulness in order to solve the movement puzzle the teacher has given you. This forces you to use yourself and move in unusual ways because the previous, automatic option is removed.

With all this stuff swirling in my mind, I conducted an improvised program with many of my habitual movement patterns. The most obvious was right becoming left and left becoming right. I’m usually a left leg first into the trouser leg, left foot first into the shoe person. The first forays into this were catching myself mid-lifting my left leg, putting my left leg back down and then lifting my right leg. To a degree I still have to do this, but more and more times I am able either to raise the right leg automatically or pause and be able to choose which leg I want to raise.

Other examples include pouring the kettle with my left arm (a little dangerous), switching which hand is on top to cup the water to splash my face with (left hand on top is still weird and not as able), left hand to brush teeth (I can do this with both manual and electric), left hand holding toothbrush right hand applying toothpaste (still weird), left hand with spatula to scoop rice into my bowl (this has become the default option), left hand using sponge to wash up (still hard), using right hand to hold and deal playing cards (I use the left because my older brother uses left and he uses left because of my left-handed Uncle)…I can’t think of anymore.

The most difficult changing of right and left are the fine motor skills such as writing and using chopsticks. Having done some practise I can write a little with my left hand but the chopstick situation is close to impossible.

Once you’ve jumped into switching right and left/left and right, then you can apply other Feldenkrais principles. Feldenkrais is often done with slowing down the movements, varying the range of motion, reducing effort, smoothing the movement, attempting to conform to straight lines or circles or some other shape (rather than jagged lines or contorted ovals), doing very quick movements, changing the trajectory of the movement, changing where your focus/attention is when doing the movement (e.g. focusing on the shoulder instead of the hand) and some other ones I probably don’t remember. An easier way to apply these principles is to simply ask oneself, “How many different ways can I do this?” In other words, you have an intention that wants to be fulfilled and you have various options in the way you can fulfill this intention. Some ways are easy, some are more difficult, some are weird, some are fun. These aspects can overlap. This starts to stimulate one’s curiosity and imagination.

By now you can begin to see that even though on a macro level one’s life may be rigid and the same but on the micro level there starts to appear massive variety. Things that were automatic, unconscious, choiceless become objects of enquiry and curiosity. And if you focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t do, then you may find yourself doing things that were previously impossible or, more interestingly, things that were always possible but you didn’t know you could do them. A lot of Feldenkrais lessons operate on the principle that your body can do the things that the lessons wants you to do but you’ve just never done them before or you haven’t done them in a long time. And the first time you use your left hand for something you’re never quite sure exactly what you are going to learn. You have an intention, you may know how it feels using your right hand to do the action, but that first excursion using the left hand always feels different. Then you have to adapt and improvise. It wouldn’t be too far fetched to say that true learning happens when you don’t know what you’re about to learn. Breaking out of the habitual in this fairly easy way engages you in a process that you may not have experienced in a long time.

When Dogen came back from China to Japan after having studied Buddhism there, people were eager to know what he had learned. After some pestering, Dogen said, “The eyes are horizontal, the nose perpendicular.”

Case 28: Nansen’s “Dharma That Has Never Been Preached”

Nansen went to see Master Hyakujo Nehan.

Hyakujo asked,

“Is there any Dharma that the sages of the past have never preached to the people?”

Nansen said,

“There is.”

Hyakujo asked,

“What is this Dharma that has never been preached to the people?”

Nansen said,

“This is not mind, this is not Buddha, this is not thing.”

Hyakujo said,

“You did preach like that.”

Nansen said,

“That’s how it is with me. How about you, Master?”

Hyakujo said,

“I am not a man of great wisdom. How am I to know whether there is a Dharma that has been preached or that has never been preached?”

Nansen said,

“I don’t understand.”

Hyakujo said,

“I have already preached to you fully.”

CASE 21. UMMON’S DRIED DUNG

A monk asked Ummon,”What is Buddha?” Ummon answered him, “Dried dung.”

[This occurred around 2008-9.]
Shall we talk about her? Or rather our fading recollections of her some ten years down the road?

She was hot. Big tits, blinging white smile, and an American accent. Spoilers: nothing ever happened between us. Normally I would say chalk it down to my usual timidity and risk-aversion but there were a few other factors involved. I ended up being an emotional sponge and defender from loneliness for her. In return I got to spend time with a lovely, gorgeous girl.

I can’t recall how we first met. I remember the usual circumstance: see a hot girl, figure out how on earth can I speak to her without having any mutual friends. I probably made some semi-public remark in a lecture, she turned around and responded and then it went from there. Couldn’t believe my luck.

She liked to drink. She had a table in her room just full of alcohol. A shatter hazard of Jack Daniel’s and tequila. She liked penguins. She had a picture of Jesus on her corkboard. She had Mexican parents. She had a boyfriend.

She was eager to be my friend because she was a transfer student with no friends. She had emotional and social needs and I was the one to fulfill them. She was likely having relationship problems by the time I met her and she confided more and more as time went on and the friendship grew. I took her out, she took me out.

Once again, I was hopelessly and helplessly infatuated. I was probably depressed on and off. Similar situations have happened before and since and the pattern is hilariously similar: not wanting to cross the line to spoil the friendship and terminate the companionship. Dithering on whether to say anything. Then do nothing and let things persist. Go out and do something with her and feel elated. Then back to depression and the cycle resumes. It should have a title like “Lovesick Samsara” or “The Serial Infatuator’s Almanac.”

As her relationship was ending her diet worsened. For some reason, “frozen chicken” has stuck in my mind. She put on a few kilos. Not that I cared since I was high and addicted on whatever hormonal concoction my body kept cooking up.

We should talk about the end. I was in a less easy-going phase, the kind that removes Facebook friends. During her last days in London she said she was going to come back to see me. Subsequent emails and my lack of response to them meant we never saw each other again. Thinking about this over the years I regret my immaturity. The reason for my ghosting isn’t a good one but here it is as best as I can remember: we had a conversation where I was being a bit weird and she thought I was being too weird and I thought this was weird since she had known me for a while now. The fact that she found this too weird disconcerted me and I felt that it was a strong and basic incompatibility between us. Since I was in this cutthroat phase influenced by various personal development material I had read, I concluded that it should be the end. And so it ended. And I feel I am the poorer for it. I have no contact details to apologise to her. And if I did, would it even matter?

Sometimes an ending catches you unawares. No fanfare, no warning, just done.

On Monday 16th April, I was expecting to grind through another month and a half of work before a short holiday in June. By Tuesday afternoon I was no longer employed. In hindsight, the Monday evening dinner was an unintentional leaving do.

Long story short, health problems made a couple of doctors recommend not doing my physical job of lifting things up and putting them down.

As I write this on Wednesday it feels as if I’ve lost something. Like a multi-day event you don’t want to end or realising years later a once close friend is no longer a friend. The removal of such a huge structured part of my life has left me somewhat floundering.

The short term benefits are amazing. Lying in, no need to wake early, no need to lift heavy things, no need to deal with a colleague who needs to be right about everything, no feeling of the grind anymore. It’s great.

I didn’t do much today. Did some singing practise, some piano practise, browsed reddit compulsively again and again and again, and spent much of the day indoors. I only left the house to go for dinner and then went for a walk, sitting for a while in a little green bit before feeling inspired/itchy enough to begin writing this.

It feels twisty and knotty and turny as my psyche is adjusting to these turn of events.

What now? Find something else I guess.

You know how when you get really into something and you feel that it can solve every problem that exists? In other words, I have found a hammer and everything looks like a nail.

I was getting more intently into meditation and discovered that my inflexibility was limiting my practice so I bought a video by Kit Laughlin on how to stretch for meditation. The meditation fell by the wayside but I got more into stretching, following along with various videos by Kit. Then for a forgotten reason I watched an interview with Kit and only intending to watch a few minutes ended up watching over an hour of it. Which brings me to the hammer.

Kit mentioned fairly early on about how soft his muscles were despite being strong and this was due to his stretching as well as his relaxation meditations. He talked about his work aiming to bring his students to a more cat-like state. Very relaxed most of the time until the exact moment you need the strength then back to being totally relaxed. This sucked me right in as it corresponds with a lot of what I understand about the Feldenkrais method. To me, having an unneeded tension is stupid. It does nothing to help. It’s similar to how when my colleague was complaining about a set of stairs day after day when we would always have to climb those stairs for the job anyway. The complaining doesn’t make it easier but in fact makes it harder. Likewise unneeded tension is a waste of energy and chronic tension often results in RSI* and a corresponding psychological tension. A good example of useless tension is when people frown and stop breathing when concentrating. Absolutely useless unless the task is to frown and to stop breathing.

I’ve been doing Kit’s lying meditations daily for a couple of weeks now and they are just great. In one of them Kit asks to savour the delicious flavour of the sighs at the beginning of the meditation and often at the end of the meditation the flavour of the state of deep relaxation is delcious. The feeling of a relaxed and liberated breath in a sea of fluffy clouds is wonderous.

The meditations have been beneficial in the rest of my life too. I notice I have developed a habitual shoulder rising when walking outside, no doubt to look bigger/imposing/masculine/handsome. I notice this quite quickly now and I am able to relax my shoulders into a chilled, neutral walk. This is who I am and I walk like this, no need to cover it with armour.

I still get angry and frustrated from time to time at work but the instruction to “breathe and relax” and occasionally using sighs like the beginning of the meditations helps mitigate the anger and physiological response.

I’ve also been using the principles of the relaxation techniques along with Feldenkrais principles in my physical job. When carrying a load of stuff I notice if there are any unnecessary tensions and ask myself “is it possible to relax a bit in this situation?” These help to reduce the effort I use and are attempts to achieve equanimity in a difficult situation. One of the major things I learned from a Feldenkrais singing book is “realising intent without effort,” and the questions above are an invitation to not try so hard. I certainly need a great deal of strength in my job but each repetition is an opportunity to reduce the amount of effort I need in order to become more and more efficient so as to reduce injury and make the work easier to do. Breathing freely is a major part of this and if you can breath freely whilst doing something difficult that’s already half the job.

All this stuff of course applies to my improvised theatre classes. A lot of what we do to warm up (body scan, letting the floor support you, breathing into tension) is designed to reduce physical tension and enable us to deal with anxiety/nervousness/self-consciousness more skillfully when it appears.

I haven’t quite been able to apply it as effectively to my singing practice mostly because I’m not learned enough to distinguish the needed tensions versus the unneeded ones. Some of the tensions are obvious like the frowning and shoulder raising, but I believe my senstivity isn’t quite there in terms of in and around the throat area.

I wonder what other areas I can apply this too…

*Repetitive Strain Injury. Unfortunately prevalent amongst musicians. I have had it in the past from playing the piano and later from smartphone use.

The late Kozuki Roshi was entertaining two American monks at tea when he casually asked, “And what do you gentlemen know about Zen?”
One of the monks flung his closed fan straight at the master’s face. All in the same instant the master inclined his head slightly to one side, the fan shot straight through the paper shoji behind him, and he burst into a ripple of laughter.

 

When the Governor of Lang asked Yao-shan, “What is the Tao?” the master pointed upwards to the sky and downwards to a water jug beside him. Asked for an explanation, he replied: “A cloud in the sky and water in the jug.”

Reading about Zen Buddhism recently, here’s a few stories I like.

CASE 40. KICKING THE DRINKING WATER JAR

During his stay under Master Hyakujo, Isan was a cooking monk. As Master Hyakujo wished to send a monk to found the new monastery called the Great Mount I, Master Hyakujo told the chief monk and all other monks that he would choose the one who would demonstrate himself as the best among them. Then Master Hyakujo brought out a drinking water jar, put it down and said, “You cannot call it a water jar. Then, what will you call it?”

The chief monk said, “One cannot call it a wooden stick.”

Then, when Master Hyakujo turned to Isan, Isan kicked the jar and walked away. Master Hyakujo laughed and said, “The chief monk lost it to Isan.” He made Isan the founder of the Great I-san Monastery.

 

Fa-yen asked the monk Hsüan-tzu why he had never asked him any questions about Zen. The monk explained that he had already attained his understanding from another master. Pressed by Fa-yen for an explanation, the monk said that when he had asked his teacher, “What is the Buddha?” he had received the answer, “Ping ting T’ung-tzu comes for fire!”
“A good answer!” said Fa-yen. “But I’m sure you don’t understand it.”
“Ping-ting,” explained the monk, “is the god of fire. For him to be seeking for fire is like myself, seeking the Buddha. I’m the Buddha already, and no asking is needed.”
“Just as I thought!” laughed Fa-yen. “You didn’t get it.”
The monk was so offended that he left the monastery, but later repented of himself and returned, humbly requesting instruction.
“You ask me,” said Fa-yen.
“What is the Buddha?” inquired the monk.
“Ping-ting T’ung-tzu comes for fire!”

 

A monk asked Ts’ui-wei, “For what reason did the First Patriarch come from the West?”
Ts’ui-wei answered, “Pass me that chin-rest.”
As soon as the monk passed it, Ts’ui-wei hit him with it.

Having gotten back from a pleasant week in Amsterdam I’m back into the swing of things at home. The usual videogames, work, pornography, masturbation, writer’s block, impro, eating, and the occasional walk to the park. I’m also getting back into my current obsession of vocal technique.

This time around I’ve been focusing more on cord closure when I haven’t been coughing due to allergies or minor illness. Given that muscles in and around the larynx are muscles, they can be strengthened. I’m mainly using the vowel EE, as per Jack Livgni’s suggestion, but also using EH and creating and experimenting with various exercises between the two vowels. I’m also experimenting the degree of glottalness or squeeze of these vowels, the continuum being from air to breathy to balanced to pressed to choking. I’m also using crying and hearty laughter to stimulate the vocal cords to approximate firmly. I’m leaning towards the pressed/squeezed side of the continuum which of course leads to tension and fatigue. They are muscles after all and overworking them will make them tired. This is of course dangerous to do without supervision, so I’m proceeding carefully. You encounter a lot in various vocal methods about relaxation and air flow but this is much the opposite of that. But without strong vocal cord approximation, the strength will not be there in the larynx to resist the air pressure from the breathing apparatus to create a strong, solid and stable tone.

I’m also looking into to making the ribcage expansion a habitual part of my breathing. My habitual breath is a low one but the ribcage hardly expands. As per the suggestion of both Livgni, Salvatore Fischella, and observation of Jussi Bjorling, I need to breathe higher. This will take time as every breath in this new way will appear high.

Then of course I have to integrate this within the framework of what I’m attempting to realise with my voice. Freer, upper range, flexibility, easy transition between chest and head voice so it appears as one voice rather than two.

Songwriting block hasn’t been solved yet. The current thinking is to write a bunch of lyrics first, then frame the music around that. Writing of the music first appears way too wishy washy and is susceptible to mental fatigue of about a half hour. Half hour of aimless noodling does nothing to create any material. The reason for songwriting is to have stuff to show people online and material for open mics.

I’m also occasionally exploring a new method I made up that probably exists somewhere else. It’s storyboarding but applied to songwriting. It goes like this: I have something I want to express. What are those things? How can this be musically represented? Melodically, harmonically, rhythmically, timbrally. What structure would suit this? What instruments?

The aim of this storyboarding is so that when I go to the instrument to create the music stuff, I won’t be as mentally fatigued because I’m no longer noodling hoping for something to appear but rather now I’m problem solving. I have specific problems and I can make attempts to solve them now I have a general idea of which way to go. For instance, there’s a song that’s been hanging around for years but it’s been difficult to add extra sections for variety. The reason why it’s been difficult is because the fragment I do have has this static quality to it that is gorgeous and adding my usual changes disturbs the stasis. So now the problem has been defined more clearly – how do I add sections whilst maintaining this stasis? Is it possible?

Man, I’ve been pretty horny these days. Haven’t decided to do anything about it yet. You may hear about it, probably in vague terms (gentlemen don’t kiss and tell), if I am successful. If unsuccessful you’ll get all the gory details.

On Saturday I went to my usual London Open Choir. Unfortunately there were only the three of us that day, and it can be difficult to do improvised songs with only three people. Our facilitator and friend Marta decided to give the two of us a vocal technique lesson. I’m wary of any vocal technique stuff from anyone because there is a tremendous amount of bullshit and misinformation, and it’s more akin to shamanism and alchemy than any sort of rigorously tested field. What also doesn’t help is that the bullshit stuff can work because the voice responds well to imagery, metaphor and sensation. You can say my cup was full.

We worked on the ribcage. The expansion of it and maintaining its buoyancy when vocalising. I must say I was humbled. Apart from the Feldenkrais-esque loosening of my shoulders every morning, I haven’t done much work on my breathing, mainly just allowing the vibration and the quality of the vibration to regulate the breath pressure. I expanded little in my regular breathing and made little conscious effort to maintain the ribcage expansion. The demonstrations by Marta, who had a long breath and non-collapsing ribcage, showed her level of training in this area and what I lacked in this area. In hindsight, after reading this David Jones article, I did inhale too much, but it was necessary and helpful in order to feel the ribcage expansion.

The reason why I wasn’t closed-minded to this was that it corresponded with what David Jones said (there’s an exercise in that article about panting without the ribcage moving) and what my old voice teacher Michael Mayer said at some point, either in his articles or in my lessons. Also it matches up well with the Feldenkrais method in that we don’t only want one way of breathing, but a choice between several ways. When a piece of vocal technique connects with these fonts of knowledge, my brain goes, “Okay, this isn’t bullshit. Relax.”

As I write this today my intercostal muscles feel the burn. There’s two sets of them, one set elevates and expands the ribcage (external), the other does the opposite (internal). Thus when maintaining buoyancy, the external set is going to feel that buuurrrrn.

Other vocal technique stuff:

I’ve kind of stopped working on the witch cackle unintentionally because I’m like that dog in Up and I found a squirrel. I’m now exploring maintaining the opening of the nasal passages, pre-yawn feeling and vacuuming air through the eyes, and discovered this new, pingy resonance that I’m trying on notes low and high. However, this pingy resonance does sound like the witch cackle sometimes so it feels like I’m on the right track. The good thing about this resonance, when I do it a particular way, I feel I can lean in on the head voice and add more intensity for a louder tone. It’s easier to add intensity on a higher head voice tone e.g. F4 but harder on a lower one e.g D4. But with this resonance exploration, I’ve been able to get a more intense tone on the lower notes where I previously I could only do it in a more breathy way on an “eee” vowel.