By Shirley Vanderbilt
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, August/September 2001.
In the small, mountain town of Eldora, Colo., nestled between towering pines and shimmering aspen trees, sits a modest log cabin. Here, Ken “Bear Hawk” Cohen lives and works in unpretentious surroundings that belie the complexities and accomplishments of his life. Cohen is Jewish by birth and Native American by adoption. He is also a world-renowned qigong master and Chinese scholar, inter-faith minister, university professor, Haiku poet, doting father and loving husband. His lifestyle is a reflection of his Native American and Taoist spiritual beliefs, living in simplicity and honoring all relations with people and nature. This spiritual dichotomy comes together as a oneness in his heart and soul. As a Native American healer, Cohen’s daily life is steeped in indigenous traditions, rituals and community. As a qigong master and Chinese scholar, he has studied the Chinese language, culture and philosophy for more than 30 years. Following two paths simultaneously in one lifetime, he has walked both roads with integrity, dedication and courage.
On a cool, fall afternoon, sharing freshly-brewed green tea at Cohen’s kitchen table, we talked about his evolution as an energy healer. “There’s a Lakota prayer,” said Cohen, “that a Dakota friend taught me and it translates, ‘Friend, whether the path is easy or difficult, I will fear not.’ I think that’s a good principle by which to live one’s life. When following a path that one feels is a path of integrity, whether that path brings you pleasure or pain, the challenge is to just keep following the direction of your heart and not to fear. Not to go in the direction of pleasure, nor to shy away from pain, just follow your path.”
Cohen exudes a sense of gentleness and quiet strength that puts one at ease immediately, as though he were an old friend. A soft-spoken man, his comments flow with intelligence and depth. He seems always mindful and attentive, perhaps a reflection of his openness to insight and growth. As a child, he relates, he could remember sights and sounds from his infancy with a distinct clarity about what he had experienced. At age 16, reading about the Buddha from a book given him by his brother, he was overwhelmed with a feeling of “this is it...as though I had caught on fire,” he said. His life then began to unfold as an extraordinary spiritual journey directed by synchronistic events, with the list of his teachers and mentors reading like a “Who’s Who” of Chinese scholars, qigong masters and native healers.
The Path of Tao and Qigong
Cohen’s Chinese studies, spanning many years and several academic institutions (Queens College, New School for Social Research and University of California at Berkeley), had their roots in one of the many chance events guiding him along his path. At 17 he attended a lecture by noted philosopher and author, Alan Watts, on music and meditation. Watts spoke of the similarity of the two, that music, like meditation, is about being in the moment with no anticipation of the finale. Intrigued, Cohen went to a bookstore seeking a title on this concept by a German author. A singular act gave birth to Cohen’s destiny when he mistakenly picked up a book on the Chinese language written by a Swiss author of the same name. While perusing the book, said Cohen, he recognized that language conditions people to the concepts represented by that language. Thinking that learning a new language would give him a different perspective, he began studying Chinese.
Cohen developed an interest in taiji soon after and began formal training in 1969. He advanced so rapidly that his instructor referred him to the William C.C. Chen School of T’ai Chi Ch’uan. Cohen trained in the Yang Family Style with master Chen until graduating with a teaching certificate in 1974. “Chen is still my teacher,” said Cohen. “The Chinese say that a teacher for a day is like a father for a lifetime. The most important thing he taught me was the spirit of qigong and martial arts. One time he said to me, ‘Cohen, what is the reason for these complicated martial arts? For instance, when you do bagua, your index finger must be as high as your nose, hand must be at a height of Tiger’s mouth, the thumb of the other hand must be pointed toward the navel...’ and on he went to describe each detail. ‘So why all this complication?’ I knew he wanted to answer his own question, so I asked ‘why?’ Chen’s answer: ‘The reason we have the complicated martial arts is to find out, is this hand my hand, is this leg my leg?’ He said most people are so separated and fragmented, unaware of their body, that in a sense the body is not their body. If it was, they would have internal control, but they don’t have that because they are bits and pieces.
“It’s a choreography of movement,” said Cohen, “that allows one, by returning to the same form and refining it in each lesson, to move more deeply to the quality of what one is doing — in a sense to make your body your own. It’s an absolutely brilliant answer. It wasn’t just follow the leader; if you do this your qi is going to feel perfect. It was much more than that. It was how to integrate your body, your breathing, your mind, your feelings, everything together.”
While in training with Chen, Cohen also met B.P. Chan, a qigong martial arts master who had come to New York from Fuji and the Philippines. “Master Chan was my first teacher in anything that could be separately categorized as qigong. Taiji is part of the qigong system, but what master Chan was teaching is what would be considered classical qigong.” From Chan, Cohen learned qigong in the older Chen Family Style, Taoist philosophy, and three classic internal martial arts — taiji, bagua and xing yi. “Taiji,” said Cohen, “is circular, soft and slow. Bagua is coiling like a dragon, just swirling about in the sky. Xing yi is more linear, more strength-developing. From Chan I learned wonderful classical Taoist meditation where the crane develops qi; the turtle, shen or spirit; and the deer, jing or sexual vitality.
“In many spiritual paths,” reflected Cohen, “they say you need two things: the technique or what you might call the power aspect, but even more important, you need the wisdom to use the power correctly.” It’s important, he said, for a teacher to be an example of high character. Although Chan did charge for his lessons, he would say to Cohen, “Don’t pay me in money, pay me in character.” Chan was open with his knowledge if he saw the student would use the knowledge to help others. “I felt that was another important teaching I got from him,” said Cohen, “that he always spoke about balancing the technical part of martial arts in training with what the Chinese would call cultivating character.”
In the early 1970s, Cohen was one of five applicants out of 2,000 chosen to attend a summer program on Taoism with Alan Watts. The group met five days a week, beginning the day with meditation followed by Watts’ lecture on some aspect of Taoism. Later in the afternoon, Cohen taught the other students taiji and Watts would go back to his writing. When invited to join the taiji practice, said Cohen, Watts would reply, “Well, I’m a lazy intellectual.” Although Watts loved watching taiji, he wasn’t interested in practicing it, claiming the only exercise he got aside from moving his fingers on the typewriter was dancing. When the summer program ended, Cohen stayed on, first living in Watts’ houseboat in Sausalito and then camping out right next to his house. They became good friends and under Watts’ mentoring, Cohen’s original Haiku poetry and essays were published for two years in Dragonfly Quarterly, a specialized publication on Haiku and Japanese literary criticism. “He was the first person,” said Cohen, “who encouraged me as a writer.” Cohen also collaborated with Watts on a book which never saw completion. Watts’ untimely death left the young Cohen on his own, with his contribution to the book — his original poems and translations of Chinese poetry — unpublished. Reflecting on Watts’ generous nature and respect for others, Cohen noted, “Alan always said that in matters of mystical experience, each person is the authority because each person is the author. You never have to assume that because someone has a great reputation, has written books or sat in the monastery, that they ultimately know more about God than anyone else.” Inspired by Watts’ encouragement, Cohen went on to author more than 150 journal articles, audio courses, and The Way of Qigong: The Art and Science of Chinese Energy Healing. His second book, a comprehensive text on Native American medicine, is nearing publication.
By 1977, having completed eight years of taiji, qigong and Chinese martial arts training, along with several years of undergraduate courses in Chinese and Taoist studies, Cohen began graduate work at Berkeley, an outstanding program in Taoist studies. His teachers included Michel Strickmann, a world-renowned scholar of the Taoist canon (the collection of Taoist literature in the original Chinese), Chinese scholar Edward Schafer and Wolfram Eberhard, an expert on Taoist folklore and sociology. During this time, Cohen also had a serendipitous meeting with qigong master Dr. Henry K. S.Wong, a Taoist abbot and acupuncturist from southern China. In a book shop, both were reaching for the same volume simultaneously. “I look up,” said Cohen, “and see this Chinese gentleman in his 70s. We start speaking to each other in Chinese, and I realize this is the mysterious, almost miraculous Dr. Wong I’d been hearing about. I thought all the stories about him were exaggeration, but they were understatements.” The chance meeting led to a deep friendship, with Wong becoming one of Cohen’s most important teachers in external qi healing. As an apprentice to Wong, Cohen continued training in qigong, especially in the transfer of qi to patients, and added to his knowledge of Taoist philosophy and meditation.
Qi, The Animating Power
Qi is sometimes a difficult concept to grasp, especially for those with limited exposure to Chinese philosophy. Falling into that category myself, I asked Cohen if it could be compared to the spiritual essence referred to in the school of New Thought. “Spiritual essence,” he said, “is related to qi, but I don’t think it’s the same. Spiritual refers to the basic sense that a person could have of their beingness, maybe a moment of such inner quiet that you feel like one with everything around you. In a state of spiritual essence a person might also be aware of qi.”
Expanding, he added, “Qi I consider something a little different. From a Chinese viewpoint it’s that animating power in the body and nature, not only those things we would conventionally consider alive, like a tree or mountain lion, but also in rocks — anything that communicates to the human spirit a sense of aliveness. Qi is also a palpable energy a person can feel with their bodies. The Chinese have extraordinary technology for cultivating qi, but the concept is known throughout the world. I recently read an account of an Apache warrior who used to locate an enemy by spreading the hands out and feeling vibrations in the air. The Navajo say all things are solidified vibration, essentially the same kind of vibration we sense in sound waves. In qigong you can learn to actually sense it; sense it in the body in another person, not just in nature through your spiritual senses, but palpably and actually sense it in the body.
“When your body is in an optimal posture or stance for qi flow,” said Cohen, “relaxed with minimal effort to hold that posture, then it becomes fairly easy to recognize when qi is starting to flow.” He described four subjective sensations which signal the flow of qi: warmth, especially in the hands and feet; weight — after being in optimum posture for five or 10 minutes, feeling as though your feet have roots shooting down to the ground; vibration or tingling, when the hands start to tingle as if there’s energy between them; and expansiveness, a feeling as though the physical dimensions of the body have changed — your skin is connected to the outside and your head is reaching up to the sky. “Somehow,” said Cohen, “the dimensions of the physical body have expanded beyond the consensual reality.” He noted there are also objective measures in science to confirm qi flow.
Among the Huron Tribe, said Cohen, orenda is their word for medicine power and also implies life breath. The healer is one whose life breath is strong. Being of help to others requires a personal familiarity with the life breath. In the qigong context, he said, “it’s important for the qigong healer to have a qigong practice,” in order to be familiar with the feeling of qi. “Unlike acupuncture,” said Cohen, “it can never be a matter of simply observing the physical signs of disease, such as feeling the pulses or looking at the color of the eye or the fur on the tongue. In the case of a qigong healer, the basis is the actual physical familiarity with the sensation and having a fullness of qi within...having some degree of control over movement of qi within one’s own body. If you can’t control it within your own body, it’s almost impossible to really understand how to control it in someone else.”
According to Cohen, the majority of practitioners practice qigong for personal well-being, not necessarily to be of help to others. Qi can be absorbed from nature or qigong exercises can be done to balance qi internally. “Areas that are dammed,” he said, “will open up so that qi will flow; so areas that are depleted will kind of fill up with pure energy. But there are times when people need outside intervention.” With external qi healing, said Cohen, “you learn how to assess the energy of a client and how to restore balance or create balance. Many techniques are similar to personal self-healing qigong techniques, but there are also many techniques that are used in healing others that one cannot do on oneself. For instance, in therapeutic gestures, like what to do for internal organs that have too much heat or too much cold, if you do that on yourself it’s not going to do anything because you need external input.”
The Path of the Great Spirit
“The Native American spiritual path is not easy,” said Cohen. “It often brings a great deal of hardship. It’s not just a matter of technology of healing and meditation, which in large measure is what qigong is. In Native American medicine, it’s part of an ancient tradition — indigenous spirituality, similar to indigenous traditions throughout the world. Whether you speak to a Native American or Zulu tribal elder or Australian aborigine, they will all agree that if a person is dedicated to a spiritual path, it seems that Spirit tests one with hardships and challenges. Perhaps that’s because a person who can weather a storm is able to help others navigate.”
Cohen’s first serious delving into indigenous studies began with a trip in 1976 to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Park in New Mexico. A friend had invited him along to attend an historic meeting between Hopi elders and a group of Japanese Buddhists who were in the United States to support Indian rights. Traveling from Boulder, Colo., Cohen and his friend visited a sacred cave filled with clear quartz crystals. “Because my friend was deeply involved in Native American studies,” said Cohen, “and I was quite new to it, he knew a method to enter that cave by making an offering and asking permission. Once we were deeply inside this natural cave, we turned out the flashlights to meditate and pray for a brief period of time.” During that experience, Cohen underwent a deep transformation. Something switched inside and he became different person. “That put me on that path,” he said.
A year later, Cohen was once again guided by a twist of fate. He met Keetoowah, a Cherokee elder, through a student in his taiji class. Keetoowah was impressed with the aura he sensed around Cohen and invited him to visit. At that first meeting, Cohen brought gifts representative of his interest in becoming Keetoowah’s student. Keetoowah, who was known for working with crystals, gave Cohen a stone to hold while meditating, then later asked what he had experienced. Following Cohen’s response, the elder agreed to teach him. “The stone chose me,” said Cohen, “not the other way around.”
Cohen was Keetoowah’s principal apprentice from 1977 until the elder’s passing in 1987. “He was the first person to train me in Indian doctoring — methods of Cherokee hand healing and energy healing techniques using prayer and ceremony,” said Cohen. Keetoowah gave Cohen the Native American name of Bear Hawk along with his first pipe, and was the first mentor to train him in ways of using the sacred pipe. “He’s a very dear friend,” said Cohen, “at least as big an influence as any other qigong or healing teacher I ever had. When I wasn’t at Wong’s, I was with Keetoowah.”
In 1979, Cohen met Rolling Thunder, a native healer from the same area as Keetoowah. Cohen became one of Rolling Thunder’s few apprentices, living with the elder for three to four months each year, over several years. “Rolling Thunder told me,” said Cohen, “that if I was going to learn his method of doctoring, I would need to be tested. Three of these tests he would give me. The fourth test the spirits would give me because they would know that if they got to me they could cause harm to many other people. He said that fourth test he would make sure was life or death.” Cohen passed the tests.
“I’m basically a hand doctor,” said Cohen, “That’s my preferred modality.” He uses his hands in non-contact treatment, supported with prayer and specific ceremonial healing songs. “I know some other healing ceremonies,” he said, “and use them as required, but my usual method is energy healing, with prayer and so on.”
It is important, said Cohen, to first learn the teachings of the land and the people who originally lived there, and to show respect for the natural surroundings. “When a person is in an area where there is either no indigenous population or little access to indigenous spirituality, something that is learned only as a technique is not only not helpful, but can be potentially harmful. Only a person who is in intimate contact with nature and natural forces can practice natural medicine.” Giving an example, he spoke of the use of plants for cleansing. “All plants that are used in smudging are gathered in prayer. My relationship to sweet grass changed dramatically when I gathered it with a Cree herbalist and medicine woman. There are songs for gathering it. Now I have such a different feeling about the plant.”
Cohen also emphasizes integrity with nature when conducting the Sacred Earth Circle, a gathering for ceremony, ritual and sharing of Native American culture. Participants are urged to first learn the values of the medicine wheel, to discover and honor their gifts, before plunging into the indigenous rituals and ceremonies. In Cohen's words, “...learning what it means to be a good human being.”
Said Cohen, “Rolling Thunder used to say to me that white people are doing things in reverse. They think by doing the ceremonies, they’re going to somehow become spiritual. He said ‘no,’ the ceremonies are an expression of a spiritual way of life. If you live close to the earth, and you seek harmony and balance with all of your relations, with the peak and the animals, the plants and the stone, with the air, water and fire, then after years of living that good way of life, the ceremonies are an expression of who you are. Don’t do the ceremonies first. First, just simplify and learn from nature. That’s where indigenous spirituality starts.”
Along his amazing journey, Cohen has branched out to many paths. For several years he has been an adjunct professor in graduate studies at Union Institute, a distance-learning institution that allows students to include an independent expert for course work.
In addition to guest lecturing on Taoism and Chinese literature, he has been a pioneer in bridging the gap between energy healing and science, addressing professional medical gatherings and collaborating with physicians on workshops and seminars. Cohen was among a group of outstanding energy healers chosen to participate in the Copper Wall Project, a research study designed to measure electrical surges generating from the healers during meditation and energy work.
In 1981 Cohen graduated from New Seminary in New York City and in the 20 years since has used his training and title to conduct weddings, counsel in prisons and set his own visiting hours to administer healing to hospitalized patients. “The ministry training,” said Cohen, “is something I genuinely enjoy, especially the whole concept of inter-faith. All religions have the same source, like the branches of a tree. As they grow, they develop different cultural inflections and at the level of the top-most branches they appear quite different. But they are actually all planted in the same soil of the soul, the heart of being itself.”
For more information on classes in qigong or indigenous culture, contact Ken Cohen at Qigong Research and Practice Center, P.O. Box 1727, Nederland, CO 80466, 303/258-0971, or visit the website at www.qigonghealing.com.