Baby, Baby, Babies

med_illustration_1Being baby-like is used as a metaphor to describe the Dao in several key chapters of the Daodejing.  I've ventured into this particular play-pen many times before, but each time I see things differently.

Speaking of seeing, did you know that babies learn to track with their eyes at two months of age.  The ability to track moving objects continues to improve for a few months until the baby can actually reach for things and grab them.  This is usually called Gross Motor movement.  But interestingly, they can reach for things without grabbing before that.

Babies can reach for things before they have control over their arms!  How do they do this?  Well the theory is that when their arms come into their field of vision, they can position them where they want them by moving other parts of their body, like their torso and head.  In Tai Chi terms, they move their dantian and the arms follow!

The ability to track a moving object with the eyes requires imagination.  Our mind creates the illusion that our entire field of vision is clear and focused.  But if you look at a single word on this page you will not be able to see the other words in focus.  The part of our eyes that focuses is a very small part of our vision.  This is probably why people experiencing intense fear or excitement usually see with tunnel vision.  It's actually the only part of our vision which focuses.  Normally our focused vision is dancing around and attending to whatever interests us and that memory-image becomes part of the whole picture we "see."  Our eyes can normally spot movement and color changes in the periphery but in order to track a moving object and grab it, we probably need to have an image of the whole field of vision in our mind.  This is a an "automatic" function of the imagination. But it is a function that develops with age and practice, during the first 2 to 6 months of life. It is a type of effort.

diego_san_2But children often have some difficulty distinguishing what is real from what is imaginary.  It's easy to see how this might come about, especially if most of what we think we are "seeing" is actually being organized by our imagination.  We usually see ghosts out of the corner of our eyes.  Magicians use 'slight of hand' which basically means they get you to focus one way and imagine the other.  When someone shouts in a crowd, "He's got a knife!" lots of people will be certain they saw it, even if it never existed.

The ability to distinguish what is real from what is imaginary is a developmental process.  It develops out of something called an "action cognitive sequence."  I'm new two this theory but it seems simple enough.  Basically, you see it and you notice it change, then you see it and you imagine it changing, then you see it, you imagine it changing and you change it.   After a couple years of this you have touched everything, put nearly everything in your mouth and you are ready to enter politics.

Because the ability to distinguish reality from imagination develops out of a type of action, it is possible to turn it off!  It is an ability related to tracking objects with the eyes, which is also a type of effort which can be relaxed.  Before gross motor control of the arms develops, babies have the ability to see without focusing, and they have the ability to reach for things without controlling their arms.  This is of course a description of the internal martial arts, tai chi, xingyi, bagua and qigong.

There is so much more we can learn from babies.  All of the above theories have been tested in one way or another.  The tests are imperfect, new theories keep showing up, and new tests bring old ones into doubt.  The paper that inspired this post is here if you want to check it out.  (The Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 2009, 50, P. 617-623)

diego_san_4The paper was sent to me because I told someone I thought the idea of reflexes was a bit flimsy.  The paper offers evidence to counter the idea that babies have reflexes.  The "rooting" reflex used by babies to find their mothers breast seems to turn off after they have eaten!  And the "sucking" reflex is very dynamic.  Babies adjust how much they are sucking moment to moment depending on how much milk is available.  They also change their sucking patterns in order to get their mother's to vocalize.  In other words, babies are in control!

And that leads to my final point, in the practice of internal martial arts we can turn off:

  1. The focus-tracking function of the eyes,

  2. The distinction between what is real and imaginary,

  3. The impulse to articulate the limbs,

  4. The use of feed-back from the eyes to "correct" balance,

  5. And the "felt" awareness of where our body is in space.

Once these impulses are turned off, once these learned types of effort are relaxed,  there is still something alive and in control.  Neo-nates, little babies, move by shrinking and expanding, by twisting and spiraling.  They seem to move from the belly...which is the dantian...which seems to include everything.