Into the Mystic

Sifu Mark Rasmus is an imposing man, a lithe heavyweight who has trained wrestlers and boxers, including Thai kick boxers. He is about 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, by my estimation, although he seems bigger as he moves with quiet energy and purpose, like a big cat.

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Sifu Mark Rasmus

Behind this warrior façade, however, is a gentle man eager to share his knowledge and expertise about tai chi and martial arts in general.  You sense that he is sensing you, measuring you, when you meet, and you get used to his mindful approach. You want to answer in kind. You sense his investment in your well being, as your teacher.

For our group, Rasmus has synthesized his “building internal power” training into a weekend workshop of 12 hours, “The Science of Elastic Force.” We are 14 tai chi devotees gathered in Frederick, Md., the next-to-last stop in the U.S. tour. Some are tai chi instructors with years of experience; others are just trying to expand their “push-hands” experiences. One comes from New York, and another from Delaware. A few are like me, local enthusiasts feeling lucky that Sifu had come so far, so close.

Mark Rasmus has taught martial arts throughout the Far East, building a worldwide following for his unique teaching method and style. You can witness for yourself his YouTube videos, readily available, featuring his lessons in Japan, where he lived for seven years, and Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he lives now “in a little hut on the side of a hill.” His skill is evident in this video, where pushes are neutralized with ease and force returned along three circular routes:

“The Science of Elastic Force” is one part mystical Hermetics, one part Chinese internal martial arts, and one part physiology – a course in body mechanics and flexibility. Connective tissue – ligaments, tendons and the fascia – are the elastic elements that give your body amazing strength, if you choose to train and develop their capacity.

We begin both sessions with meditation exercises that extend almost an hour. Sifu stresses the importance of visualizing and breathing in the “life force.” Consecutive meditation exercises ask us to 1) consider each thought that comes into your head, watch each fall away and others arise, enjoying each; 2) isolate one thought that comes to mind and concentrate on that one only, not letting it fade away for at least five minutes; and 3) let your mind go blank, dismissing all thoughts; sink into nothingness. Relax completely.

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Finally, we are breathing into the vacuum between our hands, which we  hold 18 inches apart and contract to 8 inches or less as we breath into it, literally and figuratively, filling up the space with our “life force,” our chi. Like in the video, as we run through demanding physical exercises, Sifu Mark holds up his hands, gently moving them in and out as if with an accordion, “Bring it back to this,” he says, “the life force.”

“Stretching” exercises are physically intense and exhausting, literally throwing our arms one way and violently pulling them back, stretching the tendons and opening the joints, a key condition for the “elastic” energy you need to “bounce” your opponent.  When Sifu Mark demonstrates the exercise, however, his sweeping arm throws sound like deadly weapons, whistling violently against the wind as the tendons and ligaments are stretched to their limits.

I try this with much effort and notice that I am recreating the sound of Sifu’s hurtling tomahawks but with the sound coming from my mouth, a low and restrained whistle reflecting my effort but hardly matching the power of the original.

By opening the joints and stretching our connective tissue, we are releasing our bodies to song (hsung), in the Chinese terminology, complete relaxation, a condition of readiness, a precondition for action in tai chi, as Sifu Mark demonstrates on the video, sinking below his partner’s body mass.

In Sifu Mark’s metaphysical world, this Yin relaxation is also the powerful magnetic force you use to suck your opponent into the vortex, to put them off guard, to doom them. The magnetic is Yin, the female, the cold, the dark, the low. It is water, the essential element. It is roll back, the energy of yielding. As he demonstrates in this video, your relaxation (song) allows you to return the force applied to you, without intention:

Next: The Body Electric

Prying Eyes

I haven’t joined the Pardon Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning movement, although I credit her for trying to do something about government overreach, even if it was poorly conceived. It’s fine that she will be spending a few more years in prison, as a soldier. She is genuinely contrite and apologetic.

Given her special struggle with gender identity and decision to live as a woman, I think Manning is destined for hospital treatment and out – as Chelsea Manning – before the expected eight-year term is done.

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I’m more concerned about Edward Snowden, now holed up in Russia on a one-year asylum deal. He is not contrite, but he is collared.  I’m sure he is quickly learning the limits of freedom, particularly in the grip of Vladimir Putin, former czar of the KGB.  After a year of internment, offers of asylum in Venezuela and Uruguay may look less inviting. Snowden may return to face the music. Are we ready for that trial?

Manning, a U.S. army enlisted man serving in Iraq, leaked 250,000 State Department diplomatic cables and 500,000 battlefield action reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, including a video of an Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed civilians, including two Reuters journalists. These releases shone a harsh light on U.S. diplomatic and military activities – an embarrassment, certainly, and a black eye for American relations with some allies.  But also sunshine on a dark place.

Snowden was a civilian computer program analyst working on contract for the National Security Agency.  He used his access to reveal NSA’s massive metadata gathering of U.S. phone records, and its PRISM, EKeyscore and Tempora Internet surveillance programs on Americans. He also revealed parallel British mega-spying, leaking the information to both UK’s Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post.

Both Manning and Snowden maintain they leaked the information to journalists to expose the overreach and deception of U.S. policy makers. Manning’s data dump was to an international Internet clearinghouse called WikiLeaks, which promises no holds barred in releasing government documents and protecting whistleblowers. WikiLeaks and its leader Julian Assange have come to the aid of Snowden, trying to help him find asylum.

What makes Snowden’s case unique, however, is that his leaks involve the U.S. government spying on its own people. The NSA has cast its widest net under the cover of the “war on terrorism” to record and review voice and email communications of Americans, tracking who is talking to whom and how often (metadata).

ImageBased on Snowden’s information, the NSA surveillance programs appear to violate the privacy rights of millions of Americans. Since those revelations, ensuing audits and declassified documents have shown that NSA has, in fact, stepped over the line again and again in the name of fighting terrorism. It’s time for Congress and the administration to sanction illegal surveillance activity, and review and reform these intelligence programs. We need greater oversight.

President Obama has promised to fix it, and I look forward to seeing the details. Part of fixing the program should be giving Snowden credit for time served behind the old Iron Curtain, at least tacit credit for exposing the NSA problems. Perhaps that means that Snowden will deserve a pardon. I look forward to the trial, when Snowden stops running. But first he has a year in the gulag.

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Obama was wise to cancel a September summit meeting with Putin, but the Snowden affair was a red herring. Under Putin, Russia has acted poorly on the world stage, arming Syria’s strongman Bashar al-Assad and repressing its own people, from truth-telling journalists to girl rockers Pussy Riot. Russians are being imprisoned and killed for speaking their minds. Meeting with Putin in summit pomp and circumstance would provide tacit support for the dictatorship.

I’m sure Russia’s ignominious record (and maybe some prying eyes, and fingers) is chilling to Snowden as he sets up house in a Russian dacha. The iron culture engrained in Russian rule is no friend to notions of freedom of speech, freedom of association or freedom, period. The Russian experience is the exact opposite, citizens struggling against an oppressive state, whether it is tied to a tsarist monarchy or to a communist apparatchik.

Meanwhile, we may have a creeping menace of our own, the National Security Agency. I studied at NSA headquarters in another era — focusing on the Vietnamese language and the codes the Viet Cong were using as they ran supplies down the Ho Chi Minh trail. I believe NSA is a critical element of the American intelligence community. It provided the pictures of Bin Laden’s fortress in Pakistan, for example, and images tracking the efforts by Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

Without proper oversight, however, NSA is a scary proposition, the intrusive eye in our affairs, Big Brother. The potential for abuse is enormous. As a democratic people, we have to set the parameters for this kind of intrusive spying. It is only one step removed from the oppressor in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” watching our every move.

Fortunately, Americans are not taking this sitting down: