Beyond East and West - The Stages of Learning by Erica Friedman

"Remember to study widely, question humbly, investigate, discriminate and work perseveringly. This is the way to success."1

When discussing spirituality, I find that my religious eclecticism often leads people to believe that I lack discipline. On the contrary, I find that most current spiritual paths or systems fail to encompass the complexity of my beliefs, especially those beliefs that are contradictory, yet valid. On any given day I might say I'm a Druid, a Neopagan, a Hindu or a TaoistŠ all correct, if incomplete descriptions of my worldview. By combining my studies of Western esotericism and Asian martial arts, IÕm called upon, by myself and others, to justify the coexistence of seemingly exclusive beliefs in one life. Over time I have come to believe not only that "true maturity is the ability to reconcile the tormenting contradictions of life,"2 but that these contradictions are necessary for the completion of human spiritual development.

My search into Western mysteries began, as so many have, with the path of the "kitchen witch." I did mostly sympathetic magic, with little formal training. At roughly the same time I began studying Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan), a Chinese martial art rooted in the philosophy of Taoism. As my connection to the world outside and the changing seasons became strengthened, my awareness of changes within sharpened. At the same time that I made a commitment to become a Taiji teacher, I also joined a large pagan organization to deepen my commitment to the spiritual path I had chosen. Although common sense dictates that Eastern thought is concerned with transcending the perceived separation of creation and creator,3 I found that my studies in Western esotericism did not contradict that intent. Just as Hinduism utilizes idols to symbolize the deities within each of us, I began to feel that the ceremonies and rituals of Western paganism were the clothing in which we draped the true experience of gnosis. Imagine, if you will, flinging flour or paint onto an invisible being, so you can see their shape or follow their tracks. I found within the grades of experience from theTaiji classics a reliable guide to gauge my understanding of Western thought as well. These stages are known as regulating the body, regulating the breath, regulating the mind, regulating the qi (chi, or internal energy) and regulating the spirit. These phases are not fixed levels, but guidelines for study and comprehension. As such, they have no time or knowledge constraints and are constantly subject to revision and relearning at every stage of development, in any discipline. I offer them to the reader in hopes that these stages will serve, as they have me, as a template for personal discovery and growth.

Regulating the body4

This is the centering and relaxing stage of learning. It is also the period in which a student begins to train in the physical aspect of the "form," the moves and postures that make up Taijiquan. By relaxing and concentrating the student can become centered, balanced and rooted.i The equivalent of this degree in most Western traditions is that of the novitiate. One learns the physical components of the rituals or ceremonies of that tradition, becoming rooted and centered within the tradition. The student also uses this time to learn the group dynamics in which they will be involved. When the novice is "relaxed" or comfortable with the outward trappings of the subject, he or she can train their intent on the next level. These grades of understanding are in no way linear and the progressing student will likely find him or herself often reviewing accumulated knowledge in the light of gained experience to further regulate the body.

Regulating the breath5

In this phase the student begins to internalize the external form of Taijiquan. By deepening and lengthening the breath, one can relax not only the body, but also the emotions. Upon reaching a peaceful state, the student begins to turn outward to the muscles, further relaxing them, becoming more aware of the energy flowing, both within and without. In esoteric training the novice begins to bring their intent, their mindfulness, to the ritual or practice. The student, by attaining a calmer, deeper, more contemplative state, is consequently more open to energies that are created or focused by the ritual. It is at this stage that many people feel they have learned all that they need to know, or become uncomfortable with their study. In either case, they might leave, claiming they have "true knowledge" or wandering to the next tradition-of-the-month. Those who persevere find themselves more sensitive, more open to possibilities. Li Ching-Yen, a Taoist scholar ,said that as soon as one stops regulating, the real regulation begins.6 It is at this stage that the novice can realize his or her potential within the chosen tradition.

Regulating the mind7

In every discipline, whether exoteric or esoteric, physical or spiritual, there comes a time of plateau, when no apparent progress seems to be made. In reality, this time can be beneficial for any student. Our bodies need time to digest food and our minds need time to digest information. In this stage the Taiji student learns to stop thinking, to translate the physical movements of the form into body memory, or unconscious action. With this step, one is freed from the bondage of consciously ordering each movement. In spiritual traditions, this is the point of final initiation. No longer a novice, the graduate has moved to the next realm of learning. The ritual or practice is no longer a spectacle, but a manifestation of the deep bond between the individuals of the group, and of the individual/group with the deity. Naturally, there is a lot of attrition at this point. Many people afraid to make a commitment, or wary of entanglement, will leave. In many cases the leader or teacher of the group will cease, at this time, to correct or advise the student. This may precipitate a crisis of conscience or faith in the practitioner. However, those that remain will find themselves stronger, able to rely on self-correction and more stable in their relationship with the outer world. In Taiji, this means translating the principles of the form to personal interaction. In spiritual discipline, it means presenting a consistent body of thoughts, words and deeds. In the actual practice of ritual, the esotericist will no longer attempt to force the energies, but lead them, as the Taiji player leads an opponent.

Regulating the qi8

"Your mind is like the general who generates ideas and controls the situation and your breathing is the strategy. Your Chi is like the soldiers who are led to the most advantageous places on the battlefield."9

Being aware of your weaknesses and strengths allows you to marshal your energies to the highest good. In Taijiquan, qi is the energy that flows through you - the life force in all things. In this stage one begins to learn to generate qi, to move it at will and utilize it for healing and control. Spiritually, this stage marks the advancement of the student into training for mastery, or high priest/ess status. He or she masters the ability to lead the energies raised by the practice into a specific function. By building the energy from within and leading it, the student moves towards understanding, not only of themselves, but of others. The student can, if he or she wishes, now become a teacher, sharing insights, knowledge and actual energy, with those of lesser skill. At this stage, a diligent student returns to the beginning and reevaluates all accumulated knowledge, discarding useless prejudices and updating old habits with new ones. Until now, the practitioner did not have the knowledge to be dangerous. When one attains this level of energy , it is easy to buy into the idea of one's own power and accomplishment. The choice between "good" and "evil" does not become apparent immediately, and is therefore more pernicious. The choice is made with a series of actions and thoughts built upon each other. For a martial artist, this level can be characterized by humbly teaching those who would learn the skill and the continuation of learning, especially healing skills to compliment the martial ones. The use of qi is therefore turned to healing oneself and others. Another path could be that of challenger. It is not just an ancient phenomenon that a wandering martial artist will challenge another teacher to prove their skill. Despite calling this a test of "honor" this person seeks solely to humiliate others to feed their increasing ego. In religious practice one can choose to use one's skill for teaching or healing, the traditional path of the clergy. Or one might choose to abuse power, subjugating followers to meet one's own needs.10 The truly adept can now admit to being a worthy student.

Regulating the spirit11

If one reaches this level, there is no more choice between good or evil, self or others. The adept has found the center, the root of their spirit and can now freely learn without fear. Any skill will be utilized for the highest good. Without raising the spirit, all skill remains bound to the physical world in some fashion. The numbers of adepts at this level are small. Many are originators of religious, philosophic or martial systems of their own. At this level the path of the East or West, that of spiritual practitioner or martial artist become one. "With one thought there is good, with one thought there is evil."12 While my understanding of the higher levels of learning may be hampered by my limited experience, I believe that this outline can be useful for any system of Western spirituality. In every discipline I have encountered, I have been told that the study of the discipline is the discipline.

While not explaining the contradictions that acrue during a life of study, these stages of learning allow us freedom to experience those contradictions. The levels do not label us heretics or troublemakers, nor do they attempt to dissuade quest. At each stage we can give ourselves the right to doubt, to experiment and to justify. With this understanding we become free to make our own way. It may be as true for Western thought as it is for Eastern, for pagan, priest or martial artist that, in the words of the band Rush, "the point of the journey is not to arrive."13 While we are journeying, however, it is well that we recognize some of the landmarks.

1 Advanced Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan, Yang Jwing-Ming. YMAA, Inc., Boston MA, 1991, p.21.

2 "Jews on Vacation," M.S. Blaustein, work in progress.

3 The Masks of God: Occidental Myth, Joseph Campbell. Viking Press, 1964, pp.3-4.

4 The Essence of Tai Chi Chi Kung, Yang Jwing-Ming. YMAA, Inc. 1990, p.27.

5 Ibid, p.28.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid, p.30.

8 Ibid, p.34

9 Ibid, p.34-5.

10 "Israel Regardie, the Golden Dawn and Psychotherapy," C. Monnastre and D. Griffin, Gnosis, 37 (3) 1995: pp.40-42.

11 The Essence of Tai Chi Chi Kung, pp.35-6.

12 Yang Jwing-Ming, lecture, August 13, 1995.

13 "Prime Mover," words by Neil Peart, Hold Your Fire, 1987. i Ibid, p. 28.