I just got back from my first visit China; it was an incredible couple of weeks. It’s been almost 60 years since the creation of the People’s Republic of China. What it is today, is a nation in the midst of breakneck economic growth. Everywhere you look you can see the boundless energy of commercialism; the streets of Beijing and Shanghai are ringing with Christmas carols. Like us, they recognize how good the spirit of this season is for business.

Today’s Communist government encourages individual ambition, considers requests from couples wanting to have more than one child, frowns upon religiosity but tolerates some expression. Bridal parties come to the beautiful Catholic Church downtown to be photographed in front of its ornate façade. They stand shivering in the freezing cold to capture the romance of this special moment because it’s what they’ve seen on TV and in movies. After the pictures are taken, however, nobody goes inside.

Everybody will talk to you, because they want to practice their English for the upcoming Olympic Games. The number of college students in China has doubled in the last decade, and lots of them study English. In Tiananmen Square (the largest public plaza in the world) I sat for a long time and could still feel the tanks during those bloody pro-democracy confrontations not so long ago. I asked a young English major if there was anything left of that movement, and she said they don’t talk much about politics; they trust their leaders are making decisions that are in their best interest. At first I bristled, until I recognized the truth: the citizens of most nations believe their leadership speaks for them and are willing to march along in patriotic rhythm.

The old Chinese culture is everywhere if you walk the old streets, bargain in the dirt markets, or eat at outdoor food stalls. The palaces and museums are exquisite, and the Forbidden City and Great Wall awe-inspiring, but the culture didn’t come with a soul that I could feel. I didn’t feel the spirit of China until the day before I left. On that day, my wife explored the Beijing Pearl Market, and I spent the day across the street at the Temple of Heaven. These sacred grounds are the largest, open green area in all Beijing. Built during the 15th century Ming dynasty, the temple is a three-tiered pagoda that is the largest wooden temple in the world. It is surrounded by other sanctuaries and palaces that were the spiritual center for the celebration of harvests, plantings, and the equinoxes. This is where the Emperor fasted and the High Priests made sacrifices. Outside the walls is a forest of more than 60,000 trees, 3500 of which are Cypress over 500 years old.

I desperately needed a bathroom, and it seemed easier to just go outside and find a tree. As I entered the woods, I became aware that there were small groups of people practicing some form of martial art. Under other trees I watched people, young and old, walking slowly around them. I sat down and watched their slow-motion pantomime, lifting their legs slowly and precisely, extending them deliberately before gently placing the foot back down. Each held one hand out toward the ground or tree, the other hand close to their chest. This is Qigong, an aspect of traditional Chinese medicine that involves the coordination of breathing and movement to tap into healing energies.
When I looked around I noticed that every tree had its own circular path around it (clearly people had been walking here for a long time). In my fascination, I forgot I had to pee so I decided to begin the walk myself. At 6’6,’’ I dwarf the average Chinese, and even though I may have looked like a spastic Crane, nobody stared or seemed to care. As I got into the rhythm, I began to feel the roots of the tree under my feet . . . then I could feel the roots as if I was breathing through my feet. Focusing on the tree, I felt an energy flowing from my feet, to the hand on my heart, and out of my other hand into the tree.

My labored breath turned misty in the cold air, and as I tired I felt that the tree was now breathing its life into me. From the tree, into my hand, pumping my heart and into my feet . . . my steps became lighter.

Here under the Ming Cypress, I felt the soul of China; at the Temple of Heaven I connected to its sustaining spirit. Find a place that connects you to the healing harmony of the universe and let it lift your body and spirit. Happy New Year to all my relations. Mi Takuye Oyacin.

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