An important part of any decent, sustainable Rule of Life is its regular review. You gotta keep checking in to make sure everything is still working. In my case, given my home situation and the age of my kids, there are two points of the year where I review my schedule, my regula, and take another shot at getting it right. They are—predictably—when the girls get out of school and when they go back to school. Well—they’re back! This week was the first half-week of school consisting only of half-days is it was a weird liminal period that was neither fully on or off. The other piece of this is that Mother M is now a rector. (Yay!!) Since she’s got her fulltime work schedule and the girls have a new schedule and their activities have new schedules, I have to sit down and figure out how to make everything work again… (And this will take a little bit to come up with something fully functional…)
A Rule of Life or regula to me is fundamentally about living out (or attempting to) what we ask help doing in Ps 90:12: “So teach us to number (or, maybe, “reckon” and hence “organize”?) our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” It’s making sure that the things that I say matter are actually present in the things that I do and the way I arrange my daily schedule. Of course, doing all of the crazy things I do, there’s *never* enough hours in the day to do all of the things I want to do balanced against the things I must do including the day-job, the extra work, the books, driving to and from ballet, and giving my wonderful wife the attention she deserves.
Typically in churchy circles regula is about fitting in “spiritual” stuff. And—yeah—it is. Prayer, meditation, and lectio certainly are included here. But the physical stuff has got to be included here too. Not being disembodied souls, maintenance of the body is simultaneously care of the soul. Not only that, some of the things I do, like tai chi and running, are definitely part of my spiritual life. My focus, attention, and clarity suffer when I’m not doing them.
One interesting aspect of all of this—how I set up my time, how I give daily progressive time to those activities that maintain and improve physical and spiritual health, and the relation between the physical and the spiritual—has been given new energy from an unusual direction… For my birthday, M gave me a book I’ve been lusting after for a while, Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey. It’s got a fascinating discussion of the importance and ubiquity of weigong training which is quite frequently forgotten in many modern western interpretations of the classical Chinese martial arts. To clarify, weigong is the “external” physical muscular strength/aerobic capacity training stuff while neigong is the “internal” training. The latter gets a lot of press especially in the so-called Internal Styles (particularly in some of the more New Age-y Western interpretations of tai chi) because this is where qi gong and meditative practices and other exercises to develop the qi, the body’s internal power, fit into the schema. The authors emphasize, though, that this is a fundamentally skewed perspective:
Neigong and weigong are the two halves that when put together equal achievement in the Chinese martial arts. All skilled Chinese martial artists have both weigong and neigong abilities, and well-designed Chinese martial arts systems make use of both categories of training exercises. Oftentimes, especially in the West, there is an overemphasis on the more esoteric neigong side of training, but without a weigong basis, neigong is largely useless. (pp. 18-20)
Physical conditioning, basic technique practice, set routines, and sparring are the four corner-posts of traditional Chinese martial arts practice. (p. 26)
(And I’ll just note here that the principal author of this section is a xingyi practitioner and thus hardly in the anti-internal camp!) Too, I’m reminded here of the great discussion in Paul Gallagher’s Drawing Silk where he expresses his bewilderment at those who want to study aspects of a pretty effective and hardcore martial art (tai chi) without doing or having the physical cultivation in terms of strength, power, and flexibility that are proper prerequisites. (If you just want to do qi gong, just do qi gong—don’t do qi gong and call it tai chi!)
((It’s also occurred to me recently how good moving qi gong exercises (like the Eight Pieces of Brocade or the Five Animal Frolics) are for either cultivating and retaining basic mobility and flexibility. Whether you believe in qi or not, the gentle movement and joint work is becoming increasingly more important to me as my body continues its slide into middle age!))
This trap—of isolating one aspect of training, especially the one that seems the most interesting and the most cool—isn’t just a phenomenon in the Chinese martial arts… I suspect we do it quite a bit in our spiritual lives too. And this, again, is why the concept of regula—patterned, disciplined habits—is so important. We have to take the periodic opportunity to stop, step back, and assess what we’re up to to make sure we’re not skewing our practice. Or, better yet, we make sure that we are adjusting our practice as needed (with the help of a spiritual director as needed?) to realize the long-term goal of a perspective that is healthy, mature, and well-grounded.