Tao of the Zentropist

January 24, 2010

Harnessing the Inner Demon: Taking Stock and Letting Go

Fundamentally, every human being is driven by an inner demon, and in some cases, more than one. Now I realize that certain literalists of a religious bent will interpret this statement as belief in actual demonic possession, which is not the contention that I’m making (I’ll leave that subject to others for now). Rather, based on my three plus decades of life, I’ve observed that people are complex yet imperfect organisms and in terms of actions, attitude and predilections, will behave in ways that reflect the internal struggle that exists within us all.

Finding a means to positively harness the darker or more negative sides of our emotions, which we must first acknowledge to begin with, is an important step in the individual’s psychological and personal evolution. Rather than live in denial as to the existence of these emotions, we must learn to channel and ultimately rise above them as we navigate our way through life.


There is an American Indian allegory, often credited to the Cherokee Nation, which directly addresses this struggle that I’m referring to. While there are some subtle variations among the retellings, the theme never changes as recounted here:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”


Joseph M. Marshall III, a multi-talented Lakota writer, educator, historian and craftsman whose works I’ve come to admire, speaks of his people’s concept of the nagi wica, or the Shadow Man in his book, Walking with Grandfather. As he explains it:

“The shadow being lives within each of us. He or she is the one that pushes back when someone pushes us. It is, as the label implies, the dark side of each of us. Its strengths are anger, recklessness, and impulsiveness, and most of its existence (in most cases) is spent waiting to emerge. Adversity most often pulls the shadow being from its dormancy, where it is held in abeyance by the absence of conflict… When it does emerge, its only limitation is the character of our overall being and the values and morals that we live by.”

In other words, the nagi wica is but a reflection of the face that we present to the world, and what is contained within is simply the hidden aspect of our complete, integrated being. We may attempt to suppress it, but in times of stress, it will sure surely emerge and if we are not careful, overwhelm us.


In Buddhist traditions, we are taught that “good” and “bad” are value judgments fundamentally arising from desire, which is the cause of human suffering. Taoism acknowledges that in everything there is balance; as there is night, there must be day; for an object to be hard, another must be soft, and so on. The way in which energy manifests itself, or is utilized, is determined in part by intent, as within it can be found the aspects of light/dark, positive/negative, good/evil or any other dichotomy the human mind seeks to explain through language. Yet as the allegory of the Two Wolves illustrates, energy ultimately takes the path of least resistance. How we cultivate it, or generate it, in turn will influence how it is applied, consciously or subconsciously.

It is because of this natural law, as it were, that we must consciously make a choice as to how we conduct ourselves and put energy to productive use. We can look at a situation, assess it as unfavorable, and immediately fall into a pessimistic mindset, which tends to cloud judgment and further feed into the current morass, or we can acknowledge that “this too shall pass” and there is opportunity to find new solutions, or set another course to our intended destination.

What we cannot do is ignore it, for energy is unforgiving in this respect and does not dissipate simply because we wish it to do so.


So what to do when confronting our inner demon? First and foremost, we must seek to understand it. For some, it may be the insecurity of having grown up with little in the way of financial resources, which often motivates these individuals to seek out financial success utilizing what talents they have. For others, it may be wrestling with low self-esteem or being too self-critical and finding a larger purpose which bolsters confidence in one’s self. Still others are consumed by jealousy and envy, and rather than explore why these emotions might exist and how to let them go while using their energy for positive means, choose to wallow in a cycle which is ultimately self-destructive.

It is important to acknowledge that sometimes, these inner demons take the form of addiction (whether to substances or certain behavioral patterns), or are the result of chemical imbalances, physical ailments or deformities, or other serious psychological and medical conditions which require appropriate professional attention and care.

Rather than allow the inner demon to subsume the “angel of our better nature,” we must strive to accommodate this voice from the wilderness without yielding to it. We may not have full control of the card hand that we are dealt in life, but how we play these cards is completely within our purview and must never be forgotten.


July 8, 2009

On the Nature of Energy

While it may seem esoteric at first, when you think about it, we spend our lives dealing with the “energy” present in both living and inanimate objects. Since interpersonal and communication skills are vital in business, understanding how we can address energy when we encounter it is crucial to identifying the appropriate response to a given situation.

Essentially, we have four choices available to us when we encounter an opposing energy: we can seek to absorb it; we can meet it with force and seek to block it; we can deflect/redirect and release it; or we can “go with the flow” and not resist the opposing energy, but simply channel it to create a favorable outcome.

Those with a martial arts background may appreciate the physical expression of this “energy channeling,” although in our verbal and written dealings with others we must ultimately be conscious of the energy that we are facing and can apply the same basic principles that we would “out on the mat,” in the training hall, or “in the street.” So let’s briefly examine the options that we have and translate these to common business dealings to understand the ramifications of our actions.

Oftentimes, “absorbing” energy is a byproduct of being caught unawares, or having our first option fail. While it is possible to train the body, for example, to physically absorb to one extent or another various strikes delivered by an unarmed opponent, most would agree that the notion of deliberately “absorbing” the energy of a projectile (i.e. bullet, arrow, dart, etc.) or an edged or blunt trauma weapon is an awful idea. The same is often true in our dealings with others, which even if not physically violent or threatening to our person, can have detrimental effect to our emotional and psychological state.

Clients, customers or vendors that attempt to get their way through verbal bullying and other tactics may very well expect you to simply “roll with the punches” and concede to their demands, no matter how unreasonable or outlandish, especially if they feel that they have significant leverage over you. Such leverage may take the form of threats of non-payment (or delayed payment of bills), taking their business elsewhere, or trying to wrangle additional work or products without having to pay for them. The obvious downside in “absorbing” such energy as expressed in these examples is that you run the risk of being made a doormat, and always “giving away the store” in business dealings. While compromise is a necessity in business, and we need to be flexible and allow a certain amount of “give and take,” it’s simply bad business to allow yourself to be outmaneuvered.

Meeting force with opposing force can be a viable strategy as well as a tactic, but suffers from one serious weakness; if the energy which you project is not stronger than the opposing force, your defense will be compromised and you may very well wind up absorbing the energy that you had initially hoped to block. Within the world of martial arts, many systems rely on hard blocks with arms and legs to meet incoming strikes, which leads to a tremendous “clashing” of energies and perhaps some physical pain as well to both attacker and defender. In social dealings, an example of this might be raising one’s voice and verbally escalating a heated conversation, attempting to shout down, drown out or intimidate the other party. Again, this carries certain risks, because it can add “fuel to the fire” in an already tense situation and may backfire if the other party refuses to back down.

Many traditional “internal arts” such as Tai Chi Chuan, Ba Gua, and Aikido, along with a number of others which blend both internal and external responses (such as a number of Chinese styles including Wing Chun) understand that a more sophisticated approach to managing energy is to deflect or redirect incoming energy so it is safely released, which in turn sets up an appropriate counter, which often has the added desirable effect of leaving the opponent off balance or vulnerable. In business, this can be an excellent response for dealing with an opposing party that is seeking to be confrontational or uncooperative; by carefully channeling their focus to other things, or finding common ground or deal points that both parties can agree upon, a tense situation can be defused and a more equitable compromise or solution may be found. This might involve psychological ploys such as using flattery or otherwise stroking the other party’s ego, but does not have to involve outright fabrication or even “lies of omission.”

Our final option is one that Aikido practitioners refer to as “blending,” or channeling the energy of the opposing force by flowing with it, and simply allowing it to travel in the direction that it is heading, albeit perhaps with some additional assistance in the form of joint locks or throws. By yielding to the energy that is projected, yet guiding it in a manner which is conducive to one’s own objectives, there is no need to expend much energy in the defense. From a social standpoint, this approach can be employed by making concessions on issues which are of lesser importance, making the other party feel that it has won a victory, in order to secure concessions or favorable terms on the issues which really matter.

Learning how to direct energy, both one’s own as well as that of another party, using the appropriate method at the appropriate time, is a skill that is innate in some, and requires focused work for many. Yet it is a skill that once developed, can make one’s relationships on a business, social and personal level far more rewarding and even less stressful.

Why not give it a try?

April 15, 2009

The Virtue of Stillness

For many of us in the modern world, we live in an age of information overload and frenetic activity. It seems that everything moves at breakneck speed, and failure to comply with this unwritten imperative spells potential disaster. Coupled with this cultural mandate which often values speed over substance is a noticeable reduction in attention spans and inability for many to focus and live in the moment.

Yet it is this moment which is most real to us. The past is behind us, an ever growing collection of once present moments which recede into memory. And the future is at once malleable and inescapable, in part perhaps influenced by our actions in this moment and those past, yet far too unknowable to simply conform to our will.

Amid the pressures of our lives, we must seek moments to engage in stillness. For it is in stillness, both actual and metaphorical, that we can most connect with ourselves and the universe, which are all intertwined. In being “still,” and allowing our senses to reach out and process with minimal filtering the pulsation of the energy around us, we are most “in tune” and plugged into a vast reservoir which can be tapped and utilized to our advantage. This concept of a universal energy is found in widely divergent cultures worldwide, although it is perhaps most famously associated with the concept of chi or ki in the martial arts. For some, such a notion is far too metaphysical, so let’s counter with a real world example of the application of such theory…

I have heard it said that having children allows parents to experience childhood once again, albeit from a different perspective. My toddler son, like his parents, happens to enjoy being out in nature. These days he is rather captivated by searching for the fast-moving lizards which can be found all around his grandparents’ property.  Although it is possible to potentially outrun these lizards, for the most part they react to movement, and a toddler has yet to master the art of stealth and stalking.

But a child can learn (within reason) to be still. I am teaching my son this lesson in several steps. He has learned that the lizards like to bask in the sun, and there are always certain spots, at certain times of the day, where lizards tend to congregate. He has learned that rather than rush towards a lizard, it is better to approach slowly. Eventually he will learn that the best option may be to lie in wait, embracing the stillness, and let the lizard come to him. By blending with his environment, and settling into the flow of energy in a specific locale, he can experience stillness and reap the reward (getting close to the lizard) that he seeks.

In my practice of the martial arts, I have experienced stillness in many forms. Within all branches of Wing Chun Kung Fu, for example, there is an exercise termed chi sao, which translates as “energy arms.” Although it is often misunderstood by outsiders, this form of “touch sensitivity” training is designed to hone the reflexes, specifically for close quarters fighting, in which visual information is processed too slowly to counter rapid attacks. Rather, one is trained to first understand what it feels like when energy is in equilibrium (i.e. the parties engaged in the chi sao training are balancing each other via the extension of the ban sao / tan sao combination in one arm and the fuk sao of the second arm). Everything must be “just right.” Excessive forward energy or force is just as detrimental as insufficient forward energy or force.  Imprecision in the structure and positioning of the arms triggers a lack of equilibrium which invites immediate attack.

Because the arms, in effect, serve as antennae, the Wing Chun practitioner must learn to “listen” to the opponent through his body, searching for the lack of equilibrium which signals vulnerability while mindful of his or her own “center.” To do this, the mind must be “still,” in a relaxed frame rather than one which wishes to impose a specific outcome. The same is true in sparring — watch any experienced fighter and there is a stillness and calm until the moment when explosive movement is called for.

Experiencing stillness allows us to find our center. It is our center which “grounds us” and allows us to tap into not only our own internal energy, but the energy surrounding us. For those walking the Path of the Zentropist, this is an essential skill to cultivate.

So take a few minutes each day to experience stillness. Find a quiet place free of distraction. You can choose to stand or sit. Close your eyes. Focus on the breath. Be aware of each inhalation and exhalation. If you are trained in proper diaphragm breathing techniques (from Yoga, martial arts, etc.), put that breathing into practice. Inhale deeply through the nose. Allow your lungs to fill. Slowly exhale, forcing the air through the nostrils with the goal of equalizing the length of each inhalation and exhalation. As you settle into this rhythm, focus on the sounds around you. Next open your eyes, allowing your visual sense to return as you continue to breathe deliberately, which should also feed information via the sense of smell. Continue to remain attuned to the sounds in your environment, processing these auditory clues as well. Spend a few minutes in this state and notice the change in energy which you will experience. All in the practice of stillness.

It is in this deliberate stillness that we are most aware, and arguably, most alive…

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