My Tai Chi teacher recently added the Yang style broadsword to the curriculum. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t ecstatic, as I’ve waited quite a while to learn a weapon form. There’s something romantic and exotic about wielding one of the four great Chinese weapons. I find it delightfully ironic that it’s a gweilo who’s catalyzed such an interest in my own culture. Take THAT, my racist and sexist Chinese ancestors.
As for the ukulele, one day I found out how inexpensive they can be and bought one right away. It’s a Mahalo Les Paul style ukulele (right down to the square tuning pegs) with an extended neck for higher register notes. In many ways, the ukulele is the perfect instrument for me right now; cheap, easy enough that I can teach myself1, and not too hard on the fingers2.
It feels fucking fantastic to be playing music in some form again. I did years of piano and flute lessons in elementary school to high school, and took a very long hiatus from then till now. And that was mostly in band, when I couldn’t choose the music I wanted to play. Now I can play the songs I like, and the advantage is that I’ve probably heard them a few hundred times so I already know them inside-out.
With my years of music lessons and performances from my youth, it’s not like I’m learning music from scratch, I’m simply figuring out how to apply what I already know about tone, posture, tuning, volume, fingering3, timing, and intonation, to another instrument. Admittedly, it’s been very slow going, and it’s like I’m learning a new language as I train my fingers to achieve a dexterity that was never there before.
The interesting thing is that my last few years practicing Tai Chi has helped me learn the ukulele. In my Tai Chi class, I’ve gained the patience and perseverance required to practice the same moves over and over again until they become a natural part of my muscle memory. In the beginning, it was a lot of concentration spent just trying to remember what to do next in the form, but now that I don’t need to think about them when I practice, my concentration goes into fine-tuning the little details. The same principles can be applied to the ukulele (or any instrument, for that matter), and I’m trying to get to the point where I don’t need to think about what my fingers should be doing, and just concentrate on playing with the right kind of expressiveness.
Which is why I have a broadsword and a ukulele resting on the wall next to my desk. Any time I need a break, I pick up one of them and practice for a few minutes.
I’ve started learning large san shou in my Tai Chi class. While it’s fun to be practicing another interactive form of the Yang style, it’s also a little scary to be learning something new as my teacher nears retirement (when he reaches 60 in four years). I’m starting to worry that I won’t reach a level where I can practice effectively on my own before his time is up.
At 2 classes a week, 52 weeks a year, and 4 years left to go, we can expect roughly 416 classes total; every class is worth 0.24% of a very limited resource.
A classmate once told me that his coming retirement is a good thing. We’ll be forced to go elsewhere to expand our knowledge of Tai Chi, because we reach certain limitations when practicing with the same partners, skill levels, partners, styles, body types, and even teachers. While I understand his reasoning, it doesn’t change the fact that I may not be able to continue learning what I know now, if another teacher doesn’t offer the same curriculum.
Added to this is the fact that martial Tai Chi teachers are hard to find in a city as small as this. Good teachers, especially ones suited to your learning style, with the right balance of patience and discipline, are even less common.
It makes me wonder where I’ll be with my Tai Chi progress in four years.
Knowing the consistency with which I go, she asked me if I ever felt like not going to my Tai Chi classes on Tuesday and Thursday nights.
I thought about it, and came to the realization that I didn’t. There have been winter nights where the combination of snowstorm and ailing transit system have suddenly left me with a welcome free night, but other than that, I always enjoy going to class.
Before Tai Chi was table tennis1, and some days, I’d have to force myself to go. But when I was there, in the middle of a good rally, then panting, sweating, exhausted afterward, I’d always remind myself that I was glad I went.
Tai Chi offers me something else though, a way for me to lose myself for an hour or two. Maybe because it takes so much focus, or so much focus to not focus on anything, that I’m able to forget everything else. Even when I’m practicing the form on my own it’s not the same. Being at the studio with the other students — learning from and teaching each other, applying the principles we can’t practice by ourselves — lets me get away. On top of that, I know that I’m improving, even if I may not notice it in myself.
And that’s enough to make me look forward to my next class as soon as I step out of the studio into the cool night air.
There’s a good mix of body types and skill levels in my Tai Chi class. As the most junior person in the group, I have the benefit of always working with people who are better than me (although being able to teach someone myself would certainly help solidify the concepts in my head).
Nothing beats working with the teacher, who can precisely vary his skill level so one can learn and absorb things in small increments, a systematic way of fine-tuning the details at a gradual pace. It’s something that takes a great deal of time for better results in the long-run, and I’m sure that in this sense, he’s investing in his students as much as one invests in the class.
Still, there are senior students who teach me significant things within a single minute of working with them. They fill in the gaps in my knowledge that I’m not sure I’d be able to figure out by myself, because they’ve been at my level before and understand what I’m doing wrong. Add to this a propensity to teach and help, and every class I walk away feeling like I’m improving, if only by a small amount. Sometimes it’s to the point where I feel like my mind is going to explode, and the coordination of my body needs to catch up with the concepts in my brain.
But there are also senior students who seem stiff and uncooperative to the point where I feel I don’t learn anything from them. And even though I’m told they’re being nice and not overbearing, I find practicing with them to be very difficult. It’s as if they’re working too far beyond my level, where my structure falls apart and I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. Maybe it just means I’m not skilled enough to adjust and do it right yet. I’m still thankful to be able to work with them though, because at the very least, they remind me that not everyone who’s going to attack you will be cooperative.
Another correlation between the physical expression of Tai Chi and philosophical ideas of Taoism is the ubiquitous existence of paradoxes in both. There are contradictory answers to many questions, and at the same time, the answers are very simple (a paradox in itself).
An example from Tai Chi is the posture of the p’eng shape. If you’re too stiff, you can be pushed over easily. If you’re too relaxed, you can be collapsed easily. People make the mistake of thinking that you have to be one or the either — that you’re either resisting a force or letting it move you — without understanding that there exists a “somewhere in between”. It’s difficult to explain how something can be structured and relaxed at the same time.
A Taoist example is the idea of wu wei, or “action without action”. Practically speaking, it’s the concept that you don’t do anything that isn’t necessary, and by remaining reactionary you let nature (or the interaction of Heaven and Earth, as Taoists romantically say) run it’s course. In doing so, “nothing is done yet nothing is left undone”.
Last class, my teacher said “Tai Chi is easy, that’s why so few people do it well.” His words reminded me of verse 70 of the Tao Te Ching.
My teachings are very easy to understand
and very easy to teach
yet so few in this world understand
and so few are able to practice
The answers remain elusive and difficult to explain because they must be felt, as in Tai Chi, or experienced, as in Taoism, a characteristic of the paradoxical nature of both the ancient Chinese martial art and philosophy.
Lights down, sound up, for this one. Maybe some tea and a pastry if it’s not too late.
I had Maps by Yeah Yeah Yeahs playing here.
Stripped down, the beat alternates between triplet–three–one–two-three–one–two and one-two-three–one–two-three–one–two, fooling the listener into thinking it’s in some sort of complex time-signature. It’s actually based in common time, but with the triplets in there and the down-beat (marked by the open snare) falling on four and then three of the next bar, the song takes on a syncopated rhythm. This isn’t what makes the song good, though. It’s all Karen O and her voice.
I’ve been so moody lately. Up and down. Developments and denouements. Most likely a result of my overthinking and overplanning over everything. Still trying to take things one day at a time, without rushing head first, without falling head over heels.
I’ve begun seeing my psychologist on a session-by-session basis (instead of on a schedule — an indication of progress). In between, my Tai Chi classes have become my therapy. There’s something about class that centres me; the camaraderie, the movements, the breathing, the contact, the feeling that I’m improving a part of myself, bit by bit, even if it’s subconsciously. A time where I can totally focus, a place where I can forget everything else.
Afterwards, it’s a drive home in the dark with the windows down, and the rustling of wind in my hair.
The serenity carries forward. I’m recharged again. Then I’m strong enough to be myself. I’m strong enough to accept these feelings.
They don’t love you like I love you.
My understanding of Tai Chi seems to come in the form of a sine wave: the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know, and as I adjust for more and more details, other details get lost.
For the last few months, I felt like I was getting nowhere. The concepts made sense in my brain, but not in my body. My teacher has said that Tai Chi is already too intellectualized, and as a person who’s never been very physically co-ordinated and tries to compensate in SHEER MENTAL POWA!, this holds true especially for me. Until I’ve mastered telekinesis, however, I’ll be reliant on more traditional means of movement.
One thing that helped a lot is when a senior student showed me what ward-off (peng) felt like. As he stood with structure in his body, I tried to push him1, but ended up pushing myself off him and falling over. In order to move him, I was forced to use the proper technique (since he’s considerably bigger than me), and expand with my entire body — legs, waist, arms, chest, lungs — instead of simply trying to move through him.
Then we reversed roles and he pushed me until I could channel his energy through my feet. It was the first time I ever felt grounded, instead of simply understanding the idea. I still don’t really understand it, insofaras I couldn’t explain it to someone else.
Adapting this all to the form is something else. I try to focus on one thing at time2 but it falls apart in other places. At this point, I’m just trying to get all the gross mechanics to be natural without having to think about it, hoping that I’ll eventually be able to fine tune everything else.
At the core of our beings, Pat and I are the same person.
What separates us is our emotion, or lack thereof. Pat’s the logical one, I’m the emotional one. I’ve always looked up to him — his strength, his morals, his personality — without really understanding why.
It’s only in the last year that I’ve come to realize Pat is a Taoist. This comes with the realization that I’m a Taoist myself, and explains why I try to be more like him.
The interesting part is that he doesn’t even know that he’s a Taoist — sort of like Winnie the Pooh — which is exactly what makes him a true Taoist.
One of Chuang Tzŭ’s parables illustrates this point. In an abbreviated version, Knowledge seeks a conscious reflection to know the Tao, and asked Silent Do Nothing and Reckless Blurter, before asking The Yellow Emperor (ahhh, the Romantic personification of Chinese fables):
Knowledge said to The Yellow Emperor, “I asked Silent Do Nothing and he kept quiet. Not only didn’t he answer me, but he didn’t even know how to answer. I asked Reckless Blurter, and though he wanted to tell me, he didn’t, and even forgot my questions. Now I’ve asked you, and you know all about it. Why do you say that you’re far from it?”.
The Yellow Emperor said, “Silent Do Nothing was truly right, because he didn’t know anything. Reckless Blurter was nearly right, because he’d forgotten it. You and I are far from right, because we know far too much”.
The same is true for Tai Chi1, or any martial art for that matter. Dissect it too much, and you lose the meaning. Think about it too much, and you don’t react. As Michael Babin wrote in his article on self-defense training:
It is sad but true that real skill comes from seemingly endless drilling of the basics and then learning how to transcend/forget most of what you have so patiently learned.
In other words, learning structure is essential to learning to react to a complete lack of structure (i.e. a real fight); but if you focus on structure for too long it becomes counter-productive to “being without structure” in martial terms. One of the many annoying paradoxes in the internal arts.
One of the many paradoxes in the Taoist philosophy as well. As much as I try to study it, learn it, and apply it, I find myself thinking about it too much. As a result, I occasionally stray from being centered, and lose my balance.
It’s the conscious reflection which Knowledge is seeking that preemptively dooms his search. This is my problem as well. I buy Taoist books with a thirst for knowledge, but they’re all telling me the same thing now. Not that the books haven’t helped at all, but I feel like I’ve reached a limit. Perhaps even the simple act of writing about this is counter-productive.
I have the understanding, but I can’t apply it without thinking about it first, and it’s the attempt to apply it that ruins the point. I’ve yet to reach a stage of pure reaction and spontaneity, like Pat.
But I’m getting there.
I’m exhausted. It’s late. I should be going to bed, but I want to write. Here I am.
Vanilla chai, this time. I never drink this tea, so it seemed somewhat appropriate.
My limbs are sore. I’ve been practicing my Tai Chi on a regular basis, and my understanding has surpassed my physical ability. I’m starting to over-exert myself. I’ve also been using my arms instead of my whole body when advancing in single push hands, causing my arms to work more than they should. Tonight, it got to the point where they were completely weak. I suspect Elizabeth could feel this, and she switched arms before I had the good sense to do it myself.
It’s getting cold in the house1. The thermostat says 20, but it feels more like 18. I stood in the shower for a good 15 minutes, letting my skin burn under the hot water, to the point where I stepped out of the shower into the cold air and started to sweat.
No editing. No backtracking. Just type, and publish.
I happened to come across a video today by the Grass Roots.
When I think of all the worries people seem to find
And how they’re in a hurry to complicate their minds
By chasing after money and dreams that can’t come true
I’m glad that we are different, we’ve better things to do
The others plan their future, I’m busy loving you
One, two, three, four
Sha-la-la-la-la-la live for today.
Sha-la-la-la-la-la live for today.
And don’t worry ’bout tomorrow, hey hey hey hey.
Maybe I’m just reading into it, like a born-again, but the lyrics struck me as very Taoist, and the idea of detachment in particular2. Darren jokes that I’ll start preaching to him the next time I visit him because our conversations always stray to Taoism.
I’ve been feeling decidedly dark, decidedly yin, lately. Not sad or upset, but in an energetic way. I’m bouncy. Maybe this is the way my brain adjusts to my previously cheerful upswing. The funny thing is that I’m no less cheerful, just in a different way. I feel more balanced. It’s as if the mind aches from some unknown force, expressed through an emotional state, yet relishes and wallows in this.
And I’m loving every minute of it.
It’s the same thing every Tuesday and Thursday.
I get home from work. I have some yogurt. I power nap. I wake up. I eat some fruit. I take the bus to my Tai Chi class.
I’m more productive on the bus than at home. It forces me to sit, and removes me of all distractions.
Some days I like to zone out. I listen to music and let my mind wander. Lately though, I’ve been reading, to whittle down my list of purchased-but-not-finished books:
Note: Those marked with an asterisk are ones I’ve begun reading.
The one I’m focusing on now is the Mao book (which is a tome that breaks my back when I carry it in a shoulder bag) because I’m near the end of his life and it’s getting so good and so juicy. Nearly 10 months after Bronwen’s parents gave it to me last Christmas, I’m almost finished.
And I get so depressed when I read it because it’s filled with stories of such tragedy, cruelty, and misfortune. Mao proves to be such a monster, with over 70 million people dead from starvation, suicide, or torture, that it fills me with an almost infinite sadness.
Then I get to my Tai Chi class, and it’s so small and intimate, with such a great group of people, that I feel enlightened. It’s such a beautiful, tangible expression of my beliefs. My classmates are all generous, unpretentious people. The contact when I’m pushing hands, uprooting, force-deflecting — the only physical contact I have in the week now — charges me, and stave’s the loneliness for another day.
When class is over, I get back on the bus and read more about Mao, and hurt again.
I come home around quarter to ten and cook dinner and eat and write a bit and get to sleep way too late.
It’s an emotional roller coaster I go through twice a week.
Both my Tai Chi teachers eschew the title of “Master”, and prefer to be called by their first names. As I’ve had it explained to me, even the true masters feel like they need a couple extra lifetimes to completely master Tai Chi. This is what my teachers compare themselves to, so I suspect they feel it erroneous to use the same title, even though they’ve been teaching for decades.
I find it very awkward. In Chinese, the word “Master” or “Sifu” implies a teacher, not necessarily a level of skill.
When I was young, I called my cousin by his Chinese name, because I thought it was insulting to address him by his relational title of biu dai for “maternal younger male cousin” (or “mother’s siblings’ son who is younger than me”). I thought the “dai” part referred to someone as “under”, the way “junior” could be used pejoratively in English. The thing I didn’t understand was that it was appropriate, perhaps even more appropriate than addressing him by name. I’ve since become privy to the complex rules of Chinese names and titles, especially relational family ones.
People continue this tradition though, and even as parents, they’ll address their elders the same way. It’s a way of recognizing and respecting the roles in the family. Even though my Tai Chi teacher is Occidental, I feel compelled to address my teacher as “Master”, instead of “Mike”.
And it’s hard habit for me to break.
The most yielding thing in the world
will overcome the most rigid
The most empty thing in the world
will overcome the most full
From this comes a lesson —
Stillness benefits more than action
Silence benefits more than words
—Verse 43, Tao Te Ching
Sometimes, temperance is the greatest weapon.
When someone attacks you with words or tries to make you feel any less than yourself, you merely need acquiesce.
In doing so, you disarm them. You rob them of their only weapon — anger — and their words lose all meaning and significance.
Tai Chi, as the physical manifestation of Taoist philosophies, follows the same idea.
Then you will understand the flow of internal power, and, having repeatedly practiced and refined your technique and explored your own awareness, you can use and control your internal power at will.
The T’ai Chi principle is as simple as this: yield yourself and follow the external forces.
—Waysun Liao, The Essence of T’ai Chi
When your opponent expands, contract. Create a void in your stance, and let them fill that void. By absorbing your opponent’s energy, you reduce it to nothing.
I’ve finally come to fully understand such an idea. The theory made sense, but I never put it in practice, and practice is what makes the understanding complete. It was only recently that I had the chance to apply it. The old me was hot-headed with too much to prove. When faced with insulting, patronizing words, I would have reacted, instead of following the principle of wu wei. The situation was a test of myself, and I passed.
From this I’ve learned how much I’ve grown.
At the Tai Chi studio, bathrooms are shared with an accounting office in the same building.
Yesterday I found out that the keys aren’t labeled “Men” and “Women”, they say Yin and Yang.