Being Between Heaven and Earth
Just the other day, a 95 year old qigong student of mine, Maria, approached me after class apologizing for having arrived late. “You see,” she said, “2pm is my naptime. I have difficulty staying awake and getting to class during that time on Mondays. But I always feel better when I do my qigong and tai chi walking. So I just have to be here; I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Now Cynthia is very inspirational to me, having lived a healthy long life with five daughters, many grandchildren, great grandchildren, and even “great greats” as she calls them. She is very intelligent, tall at about 5’10”, and most assuredly the “grand dame” of the class of 80-95 year olds who are still vital and move so gracefully doing their weekly tai chi qigong class with me.
I also have the privilege of being a Stress Management professor at a local university. My Tuesday and Thursday classes are filled with junior and senior level college students with the average age of 20. What a difference in ages I experience in the first two days of each week. The students think at 50-something I am old as many of their parents are my age. My seniors like Maria think I am still “so young” as I am the age of many of their children. I guess you would say I am part of that sandwich generation also referred to as the Baby Boomers. We boomers are somewhere between that oh so young millennial generation and facing our inevitable journey into our golden years. Sometimes I feel very conflicted about where I have been and where I am going? But these two groups have truly enlightened me.
This teaching experience has led me to contemplate many times about the concept of longevity and how our American culture views it. The Chinese culture, as well as many other cultures of the world, greatly value living a long, happy, and prosperous life. In fact there are many symbols in Chinese art representing long life such as bamboo, the crane and even pine trees. Sau, the Chinese god of longevity, is often depicted riding a deer (another symbol of longevity) and holding a gourd attached to the end of his staff which is said to hold the elixir of life or immortality. Qigong was and is still performed as an essential form of restorative energy exercise for longevity and wellness. It is an important part of the Chinese medical system including acupuncture, acupressure, herbs and meditation. The whole design of the system is to preserve health, prevent illness and disease so a person would be able to journey gracefully into healthy old age. I was once told by a very famous Chinese qigong teacher that if you practice qigong and t’ai chi daily for a long time you can actually turn back your biological clock 10 years. Hmm, maybe that’s why strangers think my age is more like 40-something? Slowing down the aging process is a wonderful thing!
Now my young college “kids”, as I affectionately refer to them at times, are very focused on the pleasures of our earthly existence. I sometimes think they believe they will live forever no matter what happens. So the concept of living a long virtuous life isn’t really something they contemplate. One young man arrived in class with his IPOD ear buds inserted into his ears, carrying his IPAD while texting on his IPHONE…all at the same time. I was so amazed that he didn’t trip. They are all very annoyed when I tell them to “unplug” all electronics during class; or I will be collecting them for the duration of the class. As part of the Stress Management syllabus, I ask each student to prepare a 5-page autobiography of their lives so far and who has inspired or affected their lives the most. Then I have them do a series of assessments to evaluate where they feel they are currently in terms of personality type, life concerns, college life, family influences and even spirituality. Part of the final project is to design a large poster-sized Vision Board made up of all types of visual images representing what they wish, or intend, for their futures. This is the highlight of my semester to see each student present to the class how they would like to see their lives unfold. What fabulous dreams these young people have! No one can quite see past the age of 60 or so however.
One major observation I have made with this population in America is their lack of understanding of what spirituality is and that they often confuse it with religion. Their main goal seems to be to proceed through life happily and healthfully with lots of money to enjoy now and when they retire. I ask the question of them to think forward to the age of 80 and tell me, and the class, what they would like to have contributed to others, what would they like their legacy to be? Now granted, these students have a tough time writing an autobiography of 5 typed pages, double-spaced” as their life experience has consisted of being born (traumatic for some), grade school, middle school, high school and college. So they have great difficulty understanding what longevity means to them. They struggle with the concept of cultivating one’s spirit most importantly and to learn to release negative emotions which are at the core of their stress. They are all about being in their own body/mind and often exhibit poor body image. They are caught up in many energetic emotional blockages that create depression, anxiety, inner rage and self esteem issues.
One young woman however, gave me a glimmer of hope that maybe a few of them were really reaching to understand the concept of what longevity meant to them. She was presenting her vision board when she pointed to a photo of her 4 best friends. She explained that her friends had been out partying and were hit by a drunk driver two weeks earlier, and all were killed instantly. There was a hush in the classroom. She tearfully made the public statement that from now on she would never drink, smoke, or hurt anyone. She made the proclamation that she owed it to her friends to live a long, healthy, and prosperous life. She would work on her own emotional issues and really reach to find her spiritual self. She was also going to practice meditation, qigong and yoga, and eat healthier. I was speechless. She touched many lives, including mine that day.
Now my senior group on the other hand is quite the opposite. They are facing what each one conceives of what the afterlife, or heaven, might be like. And for some, death is the end of the body’s existence. But for others their concept mirrors the importance of spirit as that energetic essence that exists forever beyond our earthly life. One Monday afternoon, Carol, about 80 years old or so, was sitting in class looking very sad. Her husband had died a couple months earlier; and she was grieving. I always do an ending meditation, or relaxation time for the class. This day, I said, in ending, “just let your soul sing and your spirit soar up into the heavens, find a cloud and just lay back relaxing and enjoying the pure bliss and energy of being part of all there is.” I heard some light weeping coming from Carol, just perceptible to me. I approached her after class, hugged her, and asked her what was wrong. She said, “My husband and I always talked about sitting up there on a cloud in the heavens holding hands and being as one. Now he is gone, and my spirit needs to be with his and God’s forever. We are immortal you know. We live forever.” Four months later she found her way to that cloud.
So for me, I am here in my Standing Qigong position balancing between heaven and earth contemplating my own place in it all. I know that my life-long purpose is to “let my light /spirit shine, be a source of strength and courage, share my wisdom, and radiate love.”
Maria “qi walked” right past me yesterday with her walker, shaking her hips from side to side in a kind of proud swagger, and said, “I am getting really good at this. Maybe I’ll live to be 100. But that’ll be just long enough!”
Debi Dunn, MBA, is a Certified Level III Advanced Qigong Instructor through the National Qigong Association. She is also a professor of Stress Management at West Chester University, West Chester, PA, and holds additional certifications in yoga, meditation, Reiki, and is an EFT (emotional freedom technique) practitioner. Debi scripted and co-produced two “Qigong for Everyone” dvds, “The Basics”, and “Designing Your Own Practice”, and a meditation cd, “Tranquil Journeys”. She has studied qigong and t’ai chi with Master Nan Lu, Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming, Brother Bernard Seif, Sifu Sara Gellhorn, and Ken Cohen. Debi also presents meeting breaks and stress management workshops at a variety of major corporations. In 2001, Debi survived successful brain surgery to remove a benign tumor and began to question her soul’s purpose in life after 20 years in corporate life. She rediscovered her true inner self and rededicated her life’s work to becoming a compassionate healing presence for others. As a holistic educator, she teaches students and clients how to take charge of their body-mind-spirit balance through integrated healing modalities. www.theheartofhealing.com