My Path of Self Discovery
Stephen Procter - Meditation & Tai Chi Instructor
Certified Instructor under Sam Li - Australian College of Tai Chi & Qi Gong
Hi, my name is Stephen Procter, since a very young age I had a fascination with martial arts and meditation, I was attracted to the idea that we had the potential to better ourselves, to mould the type of person that we could become. To my young mind the idea that we had the power to shape ourselves served as a strong attraction and led to the starting of my study.
It has been a long and enjoyable journey, one that I look forward to continuing each day, looking back now I have been studying meditation seriously for over twenty years and martial arts for well over thirty, yet I still feel the passion of what they can bring to our lives. This passion is what I want to share with you, the ability for you to create who you are, to become responsible for your own physical and mental health and to live a long and happy life.
My Journey of Study
Meditation - Early Years
When I was about 12 I came across a book on meditation that I bought at a school fete, the book pointed towards the potential to enter into heightened states of consciousness through very deep relaxation techniques. I can remember being impressed when the author spoke about being able to have teeth extracted without any pain killers and without feeling pain, all he used was the meditation techniques.
This fascinated me and I started to practice it, I can still remember spending many hours laying in my parents back yard and also sitting on a rock down in the bush behind their home, experimenting with these techniques. I can remember entering into some quite deep relaxing states and felt them to be a refuge from my day to day life, I continued these techniques for many years but started searching in the direction of discipline in martial arts. This was being driven by intense bullying at school, at the time it felt like a bad thing, but now looking back I can see that it created the drive that got me to the point I am at today. Discomfort in life is often the first manefestation of the chance for something new and beautiful to arise, though I could not see that at the time
My first proper study of martial arts started at the age of 13 when I started studying judo, I thoroughly enjoyed it and practiced at any opportunity I had, I can remember practicing shoulder rolls and falls on the lawn at my parents place, also throws and holds on any friends that would let me. By the end of the year I entered my first competition and won on points, as satisfying as it was I felt a desire to explore the inner development of martial arts and how they can improve your life, this attracted me more than the path of competition.
During my early teens as most boys I discovered girls and was distracted from training, I restarted my study at nineteen going from judo to jujitsu. I absolutely loved jujitsu, it had the beauty of judo but with more tools, I felt safer studying this art and can remember practicing shadow movements of the throws for hours whenever I couldn’t get a partner to train with. I was my mother’s son, she taught us to love sports and to give everything 100%, to be the best we could at anything we did. I studied Jujitsu under two different teachers, unfortunately I cannot remember their names, but the ethic they left with me for discipline and self study has carried on. It was during my study of jujitsu that I also came in contact with my first meditation and tai chi instruction; this gave me a taste of more internal arts that I was not yet to pursue but which stayed with me my whole life.
Wing Chun Study
At the age of 22 I was fortunate to hear about a teacher instructing Vin Tsun Wing Chun in a garage, students went there by word of mouth, the training was intense and teacher was highly skilled and inspirational. The teacher was Barry Lee, he was unknown at that time, I felt like I had come home and this training enveloped my life, my wife often commented that the relationship was like a religion. I guess it could be said that my devotion to Barry and his skilled teaching was like that, but I fell in love with the intense traditional training, long hours and the potential to gain high skill that he demonstrated every day.
I trained under him for eight and a half years until he moved overseas, I continued on a while longer but it wasn’t the same without his direct teaching. Also around this time that I noticed the effect that this aggressive style of fighting was having on me, I noticed that I was superbly fit on the outside but ill on the inside. I didn't like the person I was becoming, this created an attraction towards meditation and it wasn't long before it became my new path of study.
At this time I came in contact with Buddhism and started Buddhist meditation at the age of 26, I felt like I had come home and before long my wife and myself were doing nine day meditation retreats every chance we got. Meditation made me less aggressive and I drifted away from traditional martial arts and started studying internal development. I found that the internal journey needed the same discipline or even more then external martial arts but that the internal path was even higher and took more skill to climb.
I devoted my life to this internal study and at the age of 29 my wife and I left everything and started working at Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre west of Sydney as live in managers running intensive meditation retreats. In this environment even while working we managed to meditate at least eight hours a day, and this allowed our meditation practice to progress and become ingrained. We had a wonderful life there but three and a half years later we decided we wanted to do more intensive practice then we could get in Australia. So we left this job and went to a monastery in Myanmar (Burma) on a meditation visa and studied under Sayadaw U Kundala, a high level Monk and did an intensive three month silent meditation retreat sleeping two to four hours a day.
Every moment we were awake was spent meditating, studying the mind, it was a wonderful opportunity and one I will always be grateful for. After three months we had to leave because of illness, so we returned back to Australia and worked at the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre for a while, but things had changed, my parents were getting older and so we decided it would be best if we moved back to Sydney so we could help take care of them.
Meditation in Daily Life
We settled into normal lives again, it took a while after the four years living monastery style life and it was a bumpy road settling back into the day to day grind where internal culture and mental health was not valued. It was at this time that I came in contact with Tai Chi, I wanted something that I could continue my meditation and mindfulness in daily life but also a way I could get my body physically fit again.
The tai chi helped me return to health and practice some mindfulness in movement, but during this period I found it difficult to sustain my formal Mindfulness practice during my everyday life. The difference was that in the monastery style of life people were genuinely trying to be nice people: kindness, generosity, gentleness, mindfulness of action and speech were valued. Here I was back in Sydney, the focus was more on excitement, money and "what is in it for me?". This was a turbulent time, my meditation practice fell apart, I tried very hard to sustain it in the middle of this craziness’ but using the traditional form of Mindfulness Meditation I was practicing it was not possible.
Abuse - The Greatest Gift
During this time the greatest gift I have ever received came into my life, in the workplace that I now worked there was an office psychopath, someone intent on creating suffering and finding fault in others while making themselves look good. All my meditation practice at this stage collapsed, daily I was going to work and daily I was being shouted at, abused, belittled and daily I found myself feeling sick, anxious and depressed. It reached the stage where I was sick to the stomach every single day, my body was shaking, I was breaking down in tears, the unpleasant feelings filled evey cell of my body. The owner of the company ignored this abusive behaviour, they did not want to acknowledge it, other people had already left in tears and at this time I didn’t realise there would be many more.
This left me with two choices, I could also run away and leave this job, or I could stay, my tendency throughout my life had been to run away, this was another bully, it seemed like an obvious choice. During my years of formal meditation practice I did learn one thing, when I was restless with the discomfort of intensive practice my teacher said to me, "take one seat", this means to not try to change but to be with and accept whatever you are experiencing, sit still on the cushion without moving. Could I use this same principal in the workplace, in my daily life?
I am also grateful to one of my main meditation teachers, John Hale, John told me to "Embrace all experience as you would a suffering child", he taught me this not only in words but in action as he was quite ill at the time yet not showing any suffering. This inspired me, I decided if I cannot find the right conditions to practice meditation, why not make my life my Mindfulness Meditation practice.
Taking One Seat
It all became very clear to me at this time, a path started to open and I felt compelled to walk it. I could see clearly that there was no difference between sitting on an intensive meditation retreat and everyday life: isn't there only one thing happening at a time, regardless of whether our eyes are open or closed, whether we are changing a nappy or being abused in a workplace? Suddenly my purpose became very clear, I would not run anymore, the pain in my life would become my teacher, I would study it, come to understand it, I started to understand that seated meditation was the way of training Mindfulness and concentration for every day the practice.
Every day I still woke up sick, woke up with fear of what was to come but my relationship to it had changed.
Why did I feel this way?
What is this feeling of sickness in my stomach?
What is anxiety, what is depression?
Instead of running away I started to investigate, when i woke up feeling sick I turned the strength of the Mindfulness and concentration I developed towards these feelings. Where were they located, how was I experiencing them, why do they feel unpleasant? Why don't I like them?
No longer taking pleasant and unpleasant feeling for granted - Investigate, investigate, investigate, soften, soften, soften, ...take one seat. While I was being abused in the workplace, I looked the person in the eyes, smiled, while internally my attention was on my feelings, on the anger, the fear, the frustration. The abuse became my practice, this person became my teacher.
At first I struggled, I fell many times, my habitual tendencies were to run, to react, when the feeling arose this felt like the easiest path, after all, this is what I had practiced throughout my life. But running away from the pain did not work and what I had been taught by my meditation teachers once again came to mind. During intensive retreat I was taught to sit with physical and mental pain, to not run away from but investigate it. Would it be possible to do this while being treated this way, while being abused?
I decided to follow the path of taking one seat and day by day I could see the path of Mindfulness meditation in daily life opened before me, day by day I started to change. I was still being abused, put down, belittled, but the buttons that used to get a response started to weaken until I could stand quite comfortably in the face of the abuse with very little pain. At this stage I could stop being concerned with my pain and started to observe theirs. This person was in pain, they were screaming in pain, I no longer saw them as bad but as ill, confused, living a false reality inside their head. I began to feel their pain and compassion for their suffering started to arise within me.
I then could stand and take the abuse without experiencing the pain they wanted me to feel, instead I stood and spoke quietly, smiling, internally wishing for their happiness and welfare. Aggression needs either a victim or another aggressor to exist; I was now providing neither, I now observed the effect this had. This person became more abusive, more malicious - for a while, until the pain became too great. I started to notice that this path of love and caring, of balanced mindfulness caused them to feel pain, since I was no longer providing a victim or aggressor to feed their anger it reflected back to them, it was their gift to keep, and gradually the pain became too great and so they started to avoid me. They still treated others badly but avoided treating me in this way, eventually we could work together without the abuse. At this stage I could see a very clear path, I could practice in everyday life, my practice could progress, I started to rejoice in this opportunity to learn more about myself, to continue self study.
I stayed in this workplace for 12 years, helped nearly as many people leave, often in tears, my practice had turned away from my own concerns and I was able to use the protection it provided to help others. The interesting part is that this person didn't change for the better, they were still a not a nice person, but I had changed or should I say my relationship had changed to the external situation and more importantly to my internal situation, allowing me to sit in peace in this turmoil. I learnt so much in this time, I am so grateful for the opportunity, it helped me refine the path of Mindfulness in daily life.
Loss and Protection
During this time my mother was very ill, I felt that I had nothing more to gain in this workplace, I had made my peace and learnt a valuable lesson, I handed in my resignation to leave in 2 weeks time with no regrets so that I could spend time with my mother during her last days. The morning of my last day at work I was called to my mother, she passed away that morning. Holding her hand through the dying process tested my practice, during this time of grief it continued and deepened, I could clearly see the progression that had been made, this practice could be continued regrdless of the external situation. I went to work and finished my last day, unpacking a container, continuously protected from negative people by this beautiful path.
I was now without my beautiful mother and unemployed with no idea of what to do, I continued to practice both my Mindfulness meditation and tai chi and a new path opened up to me. People came to me to learn and I offered myself as a teacher. It was at this time I taught myself html and built my first instructional website - Tai Chi Health for Life. My role as a teacher in both tai chi and meditation grew, my business model based on the understanding I had gained - be generous and kind to others, give all you have and it will return, - take one seat. I had seen this again and again throughout the years, I knew if I treated others well, if I gave all I had to them selflessly it would return, in one form or another. This is the basis my business still exists on today.
A New Beginning
Six months later I noticed an advertisement in the local paper, for a Buddhist meditation teacher, the first add I didn't respond to but the second one described me in every way other than using my name. It was placed by Venerable Yangchen, she had started Meditation in The Shire 10 years ago and due to illness needed someone to teach the classes and eventually take over. We were a natural fit, I feel very blessed getting the opportunity, it also turned out that she had lost her father a couple days earlier to me losing my mother, our paths were destined to cross as the loss of a parent was a big turning point in both our lives.
This brings us to this point, I continue to practice, teach and share my knowledge of Mindfulness meditation in daily life. I am truly blessed to be able to make a living from it and I am also very grateful to Venerable Yangchen for all the work she put into building up Meditation in The Shire as well as her trust in me to take over her project. Teaching meditation to me is like coming home again, this is where I am meant to be, everything has once again come full circle.
Tai Chi Study
Here was a teacher who understood his art, externally and internally, and also one that embodied the spirit of it in the way he conducted his life. Master Sam Li (Shen-guang Li) was born into a family of martial artists in Shanghai, China.
He began his Tai Chi and Qi Gong training with his father, Grandmaster Li Li-Qun . More years of training in Wu Style Tai Chi under Grandmaster Ma Yueh-Liang and Grandmaster Wu Ying Hua, the lineage holders of Wu style tai chi, in Shanghai ensued. Master Li is a 5th generation Wu Style and Qi Gong Master; I am truly blessed to have had to opportunity to study under him, I eventually was taken as an indoor student and joined the lineage.
I continued to study under Master Sam Li with the same passion I have approached everything else in my life, tai chi is so interesting and offered the balance between internal and external that I had been looking for. After five years of training Master Sam Li offered me my first teaching opportunity in beginner’s slow form class under his supervision as a means of further study. I did not realise at first how much there is to be learned from teaching and how much I still had to learn.
Teaching makes you look at your forms and technique in a way you never thought of before, it makes you pull everything apart in such detail that it clarify’s and imbeds it in your brain. I do not know how many times I have taught the beginning of slow form to this day but I do know that I still learn from teaching it, there is so much to see, so much it wants to reveal to us if only we would look close enough and listen.
A trap that many of us get into is thinking that we have already done something so there is nothing more to see or learn here, how far from the truth it is. Learning and studying is like a spiral that slowly tightens as it gets higher, as the spiral goes around full circle it covers the same ground again, the difference is that every time you go over the same path you see it in a different way, because your perception has been influenced by knowledge and understanding you have gained in the past.
Teaching Tai Chi
I have now been teaching tai chi for 13 years and still love teaching both classes and one on one, I never get bored of this. Teaching has opened up a whole new world for me, I come alive when I am teaching and try to pass on my passion to my students, to teach them the interest that arises from looking closely at and studying their forms. I don’t believe in secrecy but believe in tailoring each class for the students within it, keeping it fluid so that they can get the most benefits out of each lesson.
(The picture you see on the left is from the disciple ceremony where I was officially invited by Master Li to study as an indoor student.)
I love watching people’s lives change when they make tai chi part of their life, watching them improve not only physically but also mentally as they become more calm and less stressed in their normal lives as a result. I have experienced the health benefits in my own life from pursuing the path I have up to now, one with less illness, one that flows more gently, with less emotional ups and downs.
The understanding that tai chi and meditation brings into your life makes life a happier place, makes the flow of life easier to follow and that flow to have more meaning and purpose then it did before. To be able to share this is a gift, to have students that want to listen and learn is a greater gift, one that makes me feel grateful in every class that I take.
Wu style tai chi offers one of the few intact complete systems that are still being handed down today, the traditional 108 movement slow form is still being taught as the main slow form practice just as it was many generations back. Wu fast form, straight sword forms, broadsword, duelling broadsword, double broadsword and three different spear forms are still being taught.
Wu styles pushing hands, a quite complex system, is still alive and well for those who want understand deeper levels of internal balance and dissolving. Qi gong practice including step back Qi Gong founded by Master Sam Li’s father Master Li Li-Qun, is still taught and is the fastest way to accelerate the internal health aspects and energy movement within the tai chi practice. I have been fortunate to have been taught these under the guidance of Master Sam Li and it has led to my appreciation of how complete this system is
Change in Thinking
Years ago in western society there was no understanding of physical health, everyone thought that if you worked all day then that was all the exercise that was needed. Illness, such as heart attacks at the age of 50 was common, so much so that the Australian government invested in the Life Be In It campaign to encourage everyone to go outside of their homes and exercise. It was a big success and today you see people everywhere exercising and caring for their bodies, they even have changed their eating patterns from those of our parents and grandparents as an aid to health. The sad part is that there isn’t the same attention to mental health.
My purpose for the rest of my life is to bring about the understanding of the balance of both physical and mental health, our mental health is as important if not even more so then physical. Without good mental health our perception is clouded, our world narrow and our relationships with people and the world flawed.
Meditation & Tai Chi Instructional Websites
The desire to share all that I have learned brought about the creation of the Tai Chi Health for Life Website and Meditation in The Shire Website. There are many tai chi and meditation websites available but none giving practical advice and guidance for developing serious practice in everyday life, without access to a teacher. This hiding of knowledge is understandable, teachers often rely on their students to make a living, there must be a balance between what is given for free and what is taught during class otherwise their lively hood is threatened.
I have been advised by many people that I am too generous; that I give away too much information for free and therefore am lowering my value, "People will take advantage of your kindness" is often said to me. While I understand that in the economy of the market this makes sense, everything I do is based on a different understanding. I was taught that "That to be generous and to support others comes back three fold". This comes not from the economy of the market but an understanding that when someone helps us, we want to help them that this is a natural law that we all abide within, it is a separate economy. The economy of generosity is something that I have experienced over many years, I have been overwhelmed how generosity cannot be taken advantage of, it is always returned in some way. I continue to give all I have, transparently, nothing hidden, knowing that the generosity will return, it always does.
My websites have been designed to provide an opportunity for everyone in the world, regardless of financial background or access to a teacher to have quality instruction in both Buddhist Mindfulness Meditation and Traditional Wu Tai Chi. Generous support has come from others that have the same vision, that appreciate the gift, for this I am eternally grateful and inspired to give more, it has been this support that has allowed me to give as a way of life. My vision is to have the most comprehensive and detailed instructional websites containing reliable and practical information, based on the original practices, so that these ancient paths can still be trodden to the end and the benefits experienced today.
Aging, Exercise & Mental Health
As we get older most exercise gets harder to do, even if we can keep it up our ability to do it becomes less and less, this includes both physical and mental exercise. I still see many people practicing sprints and push-ups in groups in parks, people over forty trying to do a twenty year olds exercise regime. I see them hurting themselves without meaning to, I understand, they want to get healthy, but this isn’t the way to do it, this isn’t sustainable. I rarely see people in society taking time out to look after their mental health; usually it is addressed when it is too late by using drugs or therapy, after the damage has already been done.
So much mental illness can be prevented in society if more people meditated, meditation is not something that hippies do or is it for people on the fringes of society. Meditation is a natural process that provides a release value for our emotions, an off switch for our incessant thinking and a way for our brains, to use computer jargon, to defrag. It provides a means for us to process and put down the burdens of the day, allowing us to relax and to lessen the stress of our day to day lives. It offers a means of dealing with and desensitizing past traumas and also removes the fear of the future; it gives us an understanding, through firsthand experience, the functioning of life itself.
It is Time for Change
It is time here in the west that we started looking at health in a different way, firstly health should be balanced, if we want long term sustainable health we need to exercise not only physically but also mentally. We need to change our thinking, normally we go to see a doctor when we feel sick, this is already too late, our focus should not be spent on curing our illnesses but on creating conditions so that they don't appear in the first place. Preventative medicine is the best medicine and this is what I want to share with you, if you incorporate tai chi and meditation into your life you can not only start to turn around imbalances you already have but change the conditions so that it will be less likely for new ones to arise in the future.
I am not saying you will live forever, none of us will, but through incorporating preventative medicine through proper physical and mental exercise we can carry our mobility and mental sharpness well into old age. This is the real superannuation investment, this is the real investment we should all be saving up for our retirement, because it doesn’t matter how much money we put away, if we don't have good health when we retire, then the money means nothing. Maintaining good mental and physical health will allow us to do what we love, with the people we love for the whole of our life, not just part of it; this is what I want to share with you, a means to make this a reality.
Investment in Your Health
Meditation and tai chi are exercises that can be started at a young age and be done into our eighties, the oldest student I have is ninety two, no other exercise can be done like this. Not only can meditation and tai chi be done our whole life but they are also one of the few things that you can do that you will get better as you get older, your skill level will improve.
My vision is that in western countries we start to understand this, that we don’t only put money away for our retirement but that by the age of forty we start a sustainable exercise system that will keep us mentally and physically healthy and mobile throughout our lives. Meditation and tai chi offers this, it offers the means, if only enough people would realise that by incorporating these in their life now, the payoffs in the future are immense.
To have joints that work, to maintain your balance, healthy internal organs and a healthy mind for the whole of our life is something we should all cherish and not undervalue.
Thankyou for reading and take care