Tai Chi/Taoism Paradoxes

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.


  1. Re: My com­ment in class “Tai Chi is easy, that’s why so few peo­ple do it well.”

    Hmmm… sounds like some­thing I might say but it’s impor­tant to invest a slight­ly sar­cas­tic tone to the word “easy” to get my prob­a­ble impli­ca­tion that a com­pe­tent form of tai­ji is any­thing but easy which helps explain why it can be very dif­fi­cult to find a legit­i­mate tra­di­tion­al expres­sion of the art local­ly — even though many peo­ple teach it at a com­mu­ni­ty-cen­ter lev­el as a feel-good exer­cise suit­able more to the elder­ly, the infirm and the lazy.

    On the oth­er hand, I sus­pect that an old-style taoist might also well have sug­gest­ed that the rea­son so few peo­ple do it well is because it is so easy! Those who intel­lec­tu­al­ize may miss the for­est for the trees and com­pli­cate their train­ing with over­ly styl­ized, wast­ed effort because they won’t accept that “it can’t be that easy!”

    With a lit­tle dili­gence and com­pe­tent instruc­tion tai­ji at its core is sim­ple: be bal­anced, be upright, be light on your feet with­out com­pro­mis­ing your abil­i­ty to stand your ground, relax appro­pri­ate­ly, learn many tech­niques and chore­a­gra­phies at a reflex­ive lev­el — with­out obsess­ing about them — and then tran­scend those so your body moves intu­itive­ly.

    What can be eas­i­er?

  2. I find that I tend to over-ana­lyze things in Tai Chi, as well as life. It’s only yes­ter­day that I real­ized how sim­ple the world is, but it’s in our natures to make it as com­pli­cat­ed as it is. Thinking tends to mud­dy the waters. I real­ly have to agree with the old-style Taoists in that respect.

    I’m sure there’s a dis­crep­an­cy between lev­els of “easy” as well, although I prob­a­bly should­n’t get into that, for fear of over-ana­lyz­ing.

    It’s the part about not obsess­ing that’s the hard­est for me. When I’m into some­thing, I’m real­ly into it.

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