Wisdom and Power: A Philosophical Approach to T'ai Chi
The Joy of Movement
Before going any further, I want to stop for just a moment to congratulate you for staying with me up to this point. There are a great many ideas to be examined in order to arrive at a well-rounded understanding of T'ai Chi, and I can certainly empathize with the difficulty that any newcomer to the art will have in trying to grasp so many unfamiliar ideas all at once. I'm sure that this difficulty is what accounts for the fact that most of the currently available T'ai Chi books deal only with the more fundamental aspects of the art: introducing the T'ai Chi form and basic exercises for health and self-defense.
Simply by reading this far, however, you have demonstrated your desire to understand T'ai Chi at a more profound level, and I promise to do my best to see to it that your perseverance does not go unrewarded. The beauty of T'ai Chi is that it is simple, even though it takes a lot of understanding and looking at things from different angles to comprehend how broadly the simple ideas of T'ai Chi apply to every aspect of life. We have covered most of the basic groundwork for this comprehension by now, and from this point on we will be pulling things together. We will take the various facets of T'ai Chi and string them together into an integrated Way of Life that is easy to live spontaneously, and that reflects in a real and concrete way the qualities named in the book's title: wisdom and power.
But first I must complete the building of a bridge, partially begun in the previous chapter, between the elements of physical movement and expanded consciousness. Building this bridge well, and it is an important one, will require a little "foundation work," so please don't be put off if what I am talking about does not seem immediately relevant. All will become clear.
If you will recall our "agreement" on the first page of Chapter One, you will remember that one of the primary aims of T'ai Chi is to bring us to a point of understanding and mastering reality. I think it is time to take a second look at the idea of "understanding." The Bible talks about "the peace that passeth understanding," but in T'ai Chi that very peace is the understanding we are talking about.
Obviously, then, this understanding is different from the understanding that comes from learning how to do arithmetic or figuring out the answer to a riddle. However, it does have something in common with these kinds of understanding, for which it deserves the same name, and that is the elimination of uncertainty.
If we are uncertain about what to do in a given situation, we experience anxiety: "If I do it this way, then possibly I'll get what I want. But, on the other hand, maybe it won't work out right and I'll look foolish. Maybe I should do it just a little, and then quit if it doesn't seem to be working . . . but no, if I don't do it all the way, it will surely fail. But I don't know if I should take the risk, even though it would be great if . . .," etc. This common state of indecisive anxiety totally ties up our ability to act, and leaves us feeling weak and helpless.
On the other hand, if we are not uncertain about what to do, we have no anxiety - we simply do it as a matter of course, like putting one foot in front of the other to take the next step. In this case we can say that we understand what we are trying to do, and can therefore be calm and certain about our actions.
Now it is important to avoid confusing understanding with omniscience. No one knows everything, even about a limited subject, and no one can predict with absolute certainty the outcome of any action; but one can be absolutely certain about the action one is to take.
If this seems a little unclear, perhaps an example will illustrate the point. Suppose I am listening to my stereo and it suddenly stops playing. If I don't understand anything about stereos, I might say, "I wonder why it did that? Maybe the power went off. Or maybe it's this little doomaflitchy here, now let's see . . . whoops, that wasn't supposed to come off! Now how do I get this back together? I hope I don't have to spend a week's salary to get it repaired. Maybe if I just kick it a little . . . they just don't build things like they used to anymore. Darned machine!" And I will likely end up cursing the manufacturer and having a rotten afternoon.
If, however, I happen to be a competent audio technician, and understand what makes a stereo work, I will first check the speaker wires to see if they are making good contact. If they are, I will probably check the output stage of the amplifier to see if a signal is coming through. If it is not, then I will check the next stage, etc., gradually isolating the problem. Now, there is no guarantee that I will be able to fix the stereo - perhaps some component has failed for which I do not have a replacement, or perhaps I will not have sufficient test equipment to make an accurate determination. But the point is not that I knew I would succeed, but that I knew what to do. By understanding the system, I was able to approach it from a commonsense, action-oriented point of view, instead of an uncertain and frustrated point of view.
Now to go one step further, what is really required for peace of mind in any situation is not a technical knowledge of all the factors of the problem confronting you (although such information can certainly be helpful), but a completely understanding grasp of the situation as it really is, including your own lack of knowledge when that is the case. Suppose, for example, that I knew almost nothing about stereos, but fully understood and accepted that fact. Then, if the stereo went out, my course of action might be:
1. unplug the amplifier and plug in something else to make sure the electricity in that outlet was still on, and if it was,
2. wrap up the stereo and take it to someone who did understand the system to repair it.
Again, I would not experience anxiety because I fully understood, not the system, but the reality of the situation, and therefore knew exactly what action to take.
This, then is the kind of understanding T'ai Chi aims to develop; not a perfect knowledge of facts and procedures, but a complete present-moment understanding of the actual reality of every situation in which we find ourselves. To attain this kind of understanding requires more in the way of attitude than it does in the way of intelligence. It requires that you be completely open to the situation, without any preconceived notions, so that you can see exactly what is really the case. When you can actually see that, there is never any doubt, uncertainty or anxiety, for the course of action is immediately obvious and natural - you simply do it.
Now if you will bear with me for a moment while I discuss a somewhat abstract subject, I promise to tie it in as soon as possible to the topic of this chapter, which is movement, and how physical motion of the body plays such a large part in deveping the understanding which is the aim of T'ai Chi.
In the language of biology, all living things are tropisms, which simply means that they modify their own behavior in order to attain certain goals. On an organismic level, the goal of all living things is identical - survival. Eons upon eons of gradual growth and development have slowly educated life to make more and more complex behavior adaptations to bring its survival potential higher and higher. Individual cells learned how to assimilate materials from the environment and incorporate these materials into their own structure. They eventually learned to organize into larger groups of cells that moved and acted together as a single organism. These organisms gradually developed teeth, claws and other tools for dealing more efficiently with the environment. Later some of them learned to control their own temperature internally (mammals), which enabled them to develop other, more sophisticated, systems of sensing and assimilation which required a constant body heat, etc. Without going further into a detailed biological history, suffice it to say that the process of life itself has entailed gaining an incredible mastery over the facts of reality (the environment), and the development of extremely efficient methods of successfully dealing with it. This gradual "evolutionary schooling" has been coded step by step into the genetic structures of the DNA molecules at the heart of every living cell, and each new living being recapitulates this entire process of evolution in embryonic form before birth. Thus the DNA in every cell of your body possesses all possible information about life and its interaction with "external" reality (at least up to the present stage of evolution) and it passes this information along to the rest of your body through means which are only partially understood at present.
To put this more dramatically, your body, right now, is carrying on chemical reactions far beyond the conceptual grasp of the most gifted chemists on Earth. Your muscles are converting energy at a level of efficiency undreamed of by the most advanced mechanical engineers. Your sense organs and nervous system are processing information at a rate that makes the largest multi- million dollar electronic computer look like a child's toy for counting beads.
You eat, sleep, breathe, control your heartbeat, your body temperature, your digestion and elimination, build and repair body tissue, fight foreign organisms and monitor billions of chemical, mechanical and electromagnetic transformations every minute of your life, all without the least hesitation or uncertainty. In other words, you are right now so close to a perfect master of reality as to appear Godlike in nature.
Why, then, don't you know it?
If I have such an incredible knowledge of how the world is put together, and can deal with it so flawlessly, rapidly and flexibly, why is it that I ever feel helpless and uncertain? If I am in truth such a master of the world, how can I feel such a stranger to it?
There are many possible answers to this question, but the most straightforward one is simply that it is not "I" who am so confused, but only one small part of me, an evolutionary latecomer to the biological scene - my conceptual brain.
This verbal/analytical/rational part of the brain is located - for most people - in the left hemisphere of the cerebral cortex. Little is known about the functioning of the cortex (although a great deal of research is currently being carried out), but it is the latest development of the nervous system, so new to the evolutionary scene as to be considered an infant when compared to other parts and functions of our bodies, which are tried and tested over eons of time and know their jobs perfectly well. The conceptual brain is a newcomer, and is still "stretching its wings," so to speak, finding out what it can and cannot do. Now this is all well and good, and is perfectly in accord with what is necessary for it to mature and develop its full potential - which is vast - for aiding our survival and well-being, except for one small detail: it thinks it is the captain of the ship when it is really only the cabin boy.
Compared to the functioning of the rest of our organism, the conceptual brain really makes a comparatively small contribution to our day to day survival. In fact, it is the only part of the organism that regularly acts in a non-survival capacity (it invented war, pollution and chemical food additives, for example). Yet it thinks of itself as the whole cheese. When I say I want a hot fudge sundae, it is not really "I" who want the hot fudge sundae, but my conceptual brain which has developed a pleasant image of the dessert.
Man eating a hot fudge sundae
Certainly my poor stomach, which has to digest the goo, or my liver, which has to store the excess glycogen it produces, or my elimination system, which has to work overtime cleaning out its toxic wastes, would have different ideas about the subject. But my brain, which unfortunately has the power to override the rest of my body in a decision making capacity, says, "nothing doing - I want a hot fudge sundae, and I'm going to have it." And it does.
None of this should be taken to imply that the brain is "bad," or that there is anything wrong with conceptual activity. If I believed that, I would certainly be hypocritical to write a book about it! To the contrary, man's conceptual faculty is a truly wonderful and remarkable thing, opening up vistas for us human beings that are completely closed off to other animals.
Still, the presence of our enormous rational brains in our present state of understanding does present us with a serious obstacle to leading a peaceful and serene life; and that is that, unchecked, it cuts us off from the great wisdom and competence of the rest of our organism. To the rest of the body the cerebrum says, in effect, "I'm not going to listen to you, you're stupid. I'm going to figure out everything for myself," when the simple fact is that there are many things which our rational faculties are not even close to figuring out that our bodies (through the DNA) have known for eons! And these things are the very things we need to know to live in peace and harmony with our surroundings, since they are the result of a very profound and practical understanding of the nature of reality, and how to deal with it successfully with the least resistance. What we want to do is to use our "left brains" well for the things they do best, and to shut off their noise when we want to get in touch with the archaic wisdom of our bodies.
To bring this more direct and "non-rational" facet of knowledge into direct experience is the aim of the physical movement in T'ai Chi. The exact mechanism by which this works is not known, but there is a great deal of research being done currently that indicates that the right side of the cortex may have a much more direct link to this primordial DNA encoded wisdom. The right brain does not think in words and concepts - it thinks in pictures and structural relations. Many of the functions of mind which have been called artistic, creative, intuitive, etc., are now being discovered to originate with the right brain, which also mediates direct kinesthetic perception (sensation of body position, "feelings" and movement). It is highly likely that performing the T'ai Chi form, or becoming really involved with any type of physical movement, builds some sort of bridge for the transfer of "unconscious" information from the right brain into the "conscious" rational left brain. And, since the kinesthetic structuralrelations in the T'ai Chi movements are analogous to the structural relations in the natural energy patterns of the body (and the rest of the Universe), this form is a way of neurologically transferring a profound information content about reality, which already resides within the body, into objective awareness.
For the moment, however, I want to shy away from anything that sounds like "work" or a "system," and try to suggest some of the ways you can begin to make getting in touch with your body what it should be - a joy! Bodies are fun, and learning to get in touch with them, regaining the ability to understand and use them competently to achieve our own ends can be one of the most positively exhilarating, rewarding and joyous experiences of life.
To begin to open up this level of "body awareness" it is not necessary to have a plan or regimen. Experiment - e spontaneous. Try aking off your shoes right now, and wiggle your toes. Can you bend them as far forward as you can backward? Grab each toe and pull it. Can you make it crack? Tickle your feet. Are some areas more ticklish than others? Experiment. Get to know your body - be friends with it.
Take off all your clothes and stand in front of a full- length mirror. Look at yourself. Our society has been so repressed about nudity that many of us have never really looked at our own bodies since we were children. Look at your body. Touch it. Poke around in your abdomen with your fingers and see if you can feel the organs. Flex your muscles and feel them as they contract. See if you can discover where each muscle is connected to the bone.
Hold your hand palm up, then turn it plam down. Which muscles did you use? You are controlling them, but do you know what you are controlling?
Try to make a habit of noticing your body as often as possible - when you are sitting, standing, walking, running, lying down, eating, making love, talking, whistling, rollerskating, playing poker, working, dancing, driving a car.
Man jumping out of a tree
Climbing trees is something most of us did as children and have since abandoned. Except for the stern frowns of civilized society, I can't imagine why any reasonable person would not want to keep climbing trees right into old age. Every tree is unique and poses its own challenges, and there are few things more magnificent than the view from a tall, leafy tree: you see things from a totally different perspective. Also, it is safer than mountain-climbing.
If you have not climbed a tree in years, pick a low-lying specimen whose branches you can easily reach from the ground, and don't climb too high. After you gain a little more confidence, you will find yourself shimmying up the trunk to reach branches twenty feet or more off the ground.
Can you walk down a railroad track balancing on one of the rails? It's easier than it looks, but takes some doing to walk for any distance without falling off. If you live in a rural area you can do this at sundown with the last rays of
Walking down a railroad track
If you are fortunate enough to live in a community with a recreation department that offers gymnastics, by all means participate in their program. Some of the things you see gymnasts do on television that look almost superhuman are really quite easy if you go about learning them the right way. Anyone can learn to do a handstand in a few weeks by kicking up against a solid wall and gradually pushing away from the wall by exerting downward pressure on the floor with your fingertips.
When I was in junior high school many years ago, I was very un-athletic. I had never played team sports, and my peers were hopelessly ahead of me in all the athletic activities like football, basketball, track, etc. When a new coach came to school and announced that a gymnastics team would be started, I was elated: here was my chance to start a sport on an even level with everyone else. Unfortunately (to make a long story short), of the forty people who tried out for the team, only two didn't make it - and I was one of them.
This maddened me so much that I went out to the sawdust- filled broad jump pit after school every day for a month, and practiced learning a backward flip. I landed on my head many times (the sawdust kept me from killing myself), but I gradually got the knack of it, and was invited to join the team - no one else could do a back flip! This was a real turning point in my life. I eventually became very successful at competitive gymnastics, but more important I developed a genuine love for physical movement which has stayed with me ever since.
One of my early students heard this story and began to learn a back flip without the sawdust pit. He must have a much harder head than I, because he kept jumping up off the ground and trying it again. (I do not recommend this approach.)
Author does a layout back flip
Forward and backward rolls (on the ground), cartwheels, handsprings and kip-ups are all easy to do and lots of fun.
The trick to learning to make your body do anything you want it to do is awareness. Remember that you are using physical movement as a way of getting in touch with a non-verbal understanding of reality, and this involves paying close attention to what you are doing as you move. Chances are the gymnast who does a handspring does not have any more strength in his muscles than you do right now (at any rate, a handspring does not use much strength). But he understands what muscles he is to use and in what order to use them. He knows how to control his muscles to produce precisely the pattern of activity he desires. This kind of control does not come from superior physical equipment (I once knew a 9 year old girl who could tumble circles around any college gymnast I've ever seen), but from concentrating attentively on what you are doing, putting your consciousness right into your body and observing its every action. Directing your attention fully into your body without allowing any extraneous thoughts to distract you causes your Ch'i to flow, and permits you to do amazing things (it also protects you from injury).
If you like to get down and boogie, dancing is a wonderful medium of physical expression. Fortunately, popular dancing is so free-form today that you can do anything you want to on the dance floor (well, almost anything). Don't try to dance like anyone else does, or do an "official" dance step - express yourself! Find a good band, a crazy partner, and go nuts: jump up and down, click your heels, roll your hips, wave your arms.
I could go on and on, but this is as good a place as any to step aside and let your imagination pick up the act. There are a million and one kinds of activities and things to do with your body to begin regaining a lost friendship with your physical equipment. Be imaginative and spontaneous - virtues in T'ai Chi and in all life-expression. Maybe you will feel like climbing over a fence instead of walking around to the gate, or skipping down the street instead of walking sedately. At this stage of the game, don't worry too much about philosophy or concepts of movement: you are trying to let your unconscious body wisdom speak to you directly, not to impose rational ideas onto it. Systematic mastery of movement will come in time, but not until you are on good terms with your own anatomy. Try to find out what kinds of movement seem to be natural and easy, what kinds seem forced or artificial. Learn to follow your body as well as lead it, and you will find that it takes you to some far out places.
But above all, learn to enjoy moving, to get loose, to really like your body and what it can do. Your friendly physique will repay this investment in kindness many times over, for the rest of your life.