One of the hindrances listed in Buddhist meditation is ‘doubt’. Doubt can manifest in tai chi practise too as a temptation to sample other styles and approaches. After all tai chi politics is a tower of Babel and it is not uncommon to read interviews where tai chi representatives of one school or another assert that only they have the real tai chi. There is a joke which goes: How many tai chi players does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: 100. Why a hundred? Answer: one to change the light bulb and 99 to say: ‘in our school we do that move slightly differently.’
Cheng Man-ching (in Master Cheng’s New Method of Taichi Ch’uan Self-Cultivation) asserts the importance of perseverance, and laments the fault of impatience. He comes up with a lovely image: ‘Emulate the stream that gradually forms its own watercourse rather than brutishly forging ahead’ (p.10).
Thich Nhat Hanh describes a meditation practise and a way of living which refreshes the spirit with its natural simplicity. Reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s ‘Peace of Mind’ (2013) I’ve been struck by how often, in advocating mindfulness of the breath and body, he could be talking about tai chi.
‘There are three elements of awareness we need to bring together to be fully present. The first is the breath, the second is the body, and the third is the mind’ (Thich Nhat Hanh 2013, p.30). He notices how during our daily life we are immersed in our thoughts or in our work, forgetful that we have a body, at the whim of passing anxiety. We’re in a state of dispersion. ‘As you breathe in, you can connect with your body. Bring your mind home to your body and remember that you have a body’ (p.12).
There’s a simplicity to Thich Nhat Hanh’s approach, and a gentleness towards the body, which chimes with the simplicity and gentleness of our tai chi. Practicing the form we bring our mind back to our body and breath. It’s an opportunity to let go and to be with what is present. And Professor, too, gives importance to certain qualities of the breath: ‘the breathing should be long, fine, quiet, and slow’ (Cheng Tsu’s Thirteen Treatises on T’ai Chi Ch’uan’ p.114).
The simplicity of the tai chi practise handed down to us by Cheng Man-ching is a blessing. It provides a space to get in touch with ourselves without distractions. But, we live in a society that prizes consumption, novelty and complexity: ‘let’s all try this NEW thing!’ (Steve Martin). When we are sustaining a practice that requires repetition of the same form, it’s perhaps only human to get restless and start to think about other spiritual practices which seem to promise more excitement. It’s the spiritual equivalent of channel hopping with the tv remote. A search for more instant gratification. And a wish to avoid some of the more difficult aspects of our selves.
A well known Buddhist meditation teacher advises ‘take the one seat’: take a chair, put it in the centre of the room and sit on it. Open all the windows wide. Use awareness of the breath as an anchor to weather whatever waves or storms, boredom, anxiety, doubt, or restlessness arise in the body and mind. ‘Take the one seat’ has a further meaning: stick with one practice, one tradition.
Carlos Castaneda quotes Don Juan, a Yaqui Indian Sorcerer who initiated him into the way of knowledge: ‘For me there is only the travelling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length’ (‘The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge’).