It seems obvious that learning tai chi, as with any discipline, involves some effort. But what sort of effort?
One of the cultural influences shaping the world view from which tai chi emerged is Taoism [sometimes anglicized as ‘Daoism’] in which the entire natural world is regarded as: ‘the operation of the Tao,a process that defies intellectual comprehension… Taoists understand the practice of wu wei, the attribute of not forcing or grasping, and recognize that human nature – like all nature – is tzu-jan, or “of-itself-so”’ (Watts, A. 2000, p.30).
Two implications stem from this. The first is that the effort required in tai chi practice, which as a Taoist art should embody the quality of wu wei, is an effort that should be devoid of forcing or grasping. The second implication stems from the recognition that human nature, like all nature is tzu-jan – something that happens of itself. Alan Watts again: ‘The fundamental sense of it is that the Tao operates of itself. All that is natural operates of itself, and there is nothing standing over it and making it go on.’ (2000, p.42). In tai chi practice, as in our essential natures, we must recognise that there is a process of unfolding which happens in its own time. Shouting at a bud does not make it open any quicker.
Fred Lehrman, in an article called: ‘The Power of Yielding: Getting it Done by Not Doing It’ (www.chengmanching.net) tells a story about Professor Cheng and tai chi practice:
‘He said to me that my practice had reached a significant point and that it was important for me to give it special attention during this period. I thanked him and said that I had been practicing more and thinking a great deal about it, but that there were still some obstinate habits and tensions that I couldn’t seem to cut through. He smiled at me sadly, then shook his head: “The Dao is not something you can try to do.” These words enabled me to move on.’
The ‘special attention’ that Professor advised Fred Lehrman give his tai chi was clearly not the attention of ‘trying to do something’. So what sort of special attention was required?
A Psychoanalyst, Leslie H. Farber, writing in the sixties, sees our age as one in which there is a disorder of the will. He sees us as applying a conscious will to ‘those portions of life that not only will not comply, but that will become distorted under such coercion.’ (1966, The Ways of the Will, p.15).
For instance: ‘I can will knowledge, but not wisdom; going to bed, but not sleeping; eating, but not hunger; meekness, but not humility; scrupulosity, but not virtue; self-assertion or bravado, but not courage; lust, but not love; commiseration, but not sympathy; congratulations, but not admiration; religiosity, but not faith; reading, but not understanding. The list could be extended…’(p.15).
It could be extended, perhaps, to include: I can will practising tai chi, but not arriving at the peace, freedom and naturalness of one who is aligned with the Dao [Tao].
Farber theorises that there are two realms of the will. The second realm is that of the conscious willing of something – of some behaviour or state that we view as desirable. On the other hand, the first realm of will is unconscious. We are only aware of its operation in retrospect. It moves in a direction, rather than towards a particular object. ‘Direction, therefore, is a way whose end cannot be known – a way open to possibility, including the possibility of failure’ (p.9).
Problems arise when we apply the second, conscious realm of will to those domains which properly belong to the first realm.
In other words, if I understand Farber at all, we are trying to consciously will, or coerce into existence some desired state of being which arises, if it arises at all, spontaneously, by grace. We are in danger of simulating the outward appearance of what we cannot summon up by will. If we wish to be calm we can take tranquillisers; we can act with bravado to cover up a lack of courage; if we wish to console the bereaved we can affect an air of sympathy. The only trouble is that these hollow attempts to will what cannot be willed actually reduce our capacity to genuinely manifest, experience, or even recognise, the authentic states we seek. It closes the door on them.
There is a story about a young man who approaches a zen sword master and asks how long it will take him to achieve mastery in fencing. The sword master replies ‘25 years.’ The young man asks: ‘what if I practise 8 hours a day 7 days a week, how long then?’ The master replies ‘30 years’. Perplexed the young man asks ‘what if I practise every hour of every day and into the night?’ ‘Then you’ll never get it’ the master replies.
Progress in tai chi cannot be hurried as hurrying introduces a tension, where what is required is relaxation and letting go. ‘You know how it is when you get in your own light or get in your own way – when it becomes desperately essential that you hurry to catch a train or a plane, for example, instead of your muscles being relaxed and ready to run, your anxiety about not getting there in time immediately stiffens you up and you start stumbling over everything’ (Alan Watts, 2000,p.50).
Progress comes by grace, in its own time, when you are ready. Practising tai chi with a’ letting go’ into the present moment rather than projecting into the future to achieve a hoped for goal, prepares the ground. Wolfe Lowenthal notes: ‘The Tao [Dao] is not goal oriented; the very meaning of the word – “way”, or “path” – directs us to an immersion in the practice of the present.’ (Tai Chi Thoughts internet journal).
Sometimes as I practise form and think of all the principles I have to be aware of: head suspended from above, body relaxed, the heart-mind and the chi mutually guarding each other in the dantien, the kwa relaxed, hips seated, elbows heavy, fair lady’s hand, the chi sunk into the weighted leg to release the stepping foot, I wonder which most needs my attention at this point. Its not a dissimilar predicament from that depicted in a scene in a Bob Hope film.
In The Paleface (1948), set in the Old West, Bob Hope as the cowardly and incompetent dentist Painless Peter Potter, is challenged to a gunfight. Well wishers flock into the saloon to offer him well meaning advice: ‘He draws from the left, so lean to the right.’ ‘There’s a wind from the west, so aim to the east.’ ‘He crouches when he shoots, so stand on your toes.’
As Potter walks down the street to face the gunfighter, dressed in a comically brand new cowboy outfit, any naturalness has gone out the window. He desperately mutters to himself : ‘He draws from the left so stand on your toes. He crouches when he shoots so aim to the west. He draws from his toes so lean to the wind.’ With misguided confidence he congratulates himself: ‘I’ve got it, I’ve got it!’
Its not that we should not practice the tai chi principles, we clearly should, but that more than a conscious comprehension is required. Over time they need to become embodied, to become naturally part of us. It takes time and patience.
If then, in our tai chi, we are to avoid treating the Dao as something we can try to do; or willing what cannot be willed; or trying too hard to achieve mastery; or trying to force ourselves into a conceptual straight jacket, how should we practise tai chi? How should we approach the real tai chi which, in the words of Wolfe Lowenthal, leads to understanding ‘the greatness of the chi’, inhabiting ‘the centre of time’, and alignment with the flow of the Dao?
Wolfe offers some advice in a webcast on the Long River Tai Chi Circle web-site:
‘Its not so much that we do anything but we relax into it. It has to do with all the qualities of the form and even in the application of push hands, just a kind of letting go and a dropping and relaxing… There’s a tightness in the doing. One of the basic principles is wu wei, is not doing. It’s a way of just being accessible through being open and through being without the quality of forcing. To be open to the greatness of the chi. So increasingly we have to be able to identify, what did Cheng Man-ching say: “even the desperate will to succeed”… An absolute relaxation that eliminates the tightness that blocks the chi.’ In taking this advice to heart, we are in the first realm of the will, the realm of unconscious will, which carries us in a direction, along ‘a way whose end cannot be known – a way open to possibility, including the possibility of failure’(Farber 1966).
All that’s left is faith… and practice.
References Farber, L.H. (1966) ‘The Ways of the Will’, Constable, London. Lehrman, F. ‘The Power of Yielding: Getting it Done by Not Doing It’ www.chengmanching.net Watts, A. (2000) ‘What is Tao?’ New World Library, California. Lowenthal, W. Tai Chi Thoughts, on-line journal, www.longrivertaichicircle.org