Wisdom and Power: A Philosophical Approach to T'ai Chi
"Any path is only a path . . . ask yourself, and yourself alone, one question . . . does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn't, it is of no use."
- Carlos Castaneda
It is time to confront the real paradox of T'ai Chi, which I have so far danced lightly around. I have spent these first few chapters talking about balance, unity, Yin and Yang, movement, cosmic consciousness, the Law of Change, Ch'i, health and harmony. Yet lurking beneath this array of ideas and techniques for growing in consciousness and loving acceptance of the Universe, is the knowledge that this internal style of Kung-Fu is also a deadly fighting art. Its well-trained practitioners are expert fighters, able to kill or maim an opponent with a minimum of effort.
Isn't there already enough violence in the world? Why should those who wish to expand their consciousness and spread goodwill spend their time learning to fight? Wouldn't it be more reasonable to learn not to fight, to prevent or discourage fighting? Fighting doesn't seem to be a very loving way of relating to people; and even if it were somehow necessary to the cosmic plan, surely there are enough unloving and unexpanded beings around to more than take care of all the fighting our little world can stand. Why add to it?
We want to expand our consciousness, find out who we are, attain inner peace. We want to become loving beings, and aren't loving and fighting opposites?
AHA! What about opposites?
Loving and fighting are opposites, and all opposites are aspects of an underlying unity. Balance, remember, is the name of the game in T'ai Chi, and balance is nothing less than the unification of opposites. What we want to do is to unify (within ourselves) the strongest pair of opposites pertaining to human relations - love and violence.
Now, this may be a somewhat difficult pill to swallow, so I'll take it slowly; but it is in fact the reason for the apparent paradox in T'ai Chi, and the reason that the spiritual and fighting aspects of the art are inseparably joined. Every front has a back. The bigger the front, the bigger the back.
We live in a world where violence and the threat of violence cast a dark shadow across all our lives. The cities are unsafe, rioting and mob violence increasingly rear their ugly heads, crimes of violence are rising by geometric proportion; to say nothing of the proliferation of wars and revolutions around the world, the shakiness of our own political security, and the spectre of thermonuclear megadeath hovering over us all.
We find ourselves being suspicious of strangers, keeping our doors locked and ourselves locked behind them. As doors are locked, so are minds. We are closed off and narrowed, dealing mental violence and mistrust to our neighbors, fearing it from them in return. We have become so involved in protecting ourselves (our bodies and our egos) that we no longer know what we are protecting. We don't know who we are, or what our proper place in the Universe might be.
We want to love, we want to embrace mankind in brotherhood, we want to open ourselves and live freely in goodwill; but how can we be open when we are afraid?
It is fashionable to act as if we are not afraid - we chat gregariously with our friends, laugh and play, busily pursue our work and our pleasures, hold our opinions, go to meetings of this group or that, and our lives are all nicely structured and everything is fine.
But we are afraid. We are afraid for our lives, for our property, for our security, for our social position, our job seniority, our psychological well-being. We live in a fear- oriented society; a society dominated by competition and the fear of losing out, by power and the fear of compulsion, by conformity and the fear of being different, by guilt and the fear of being sinful, by money and the fear of poverty, by ego and the fear of being unloved, and - ultimately - by raw force and the fear of violence.
Love is opening up, expanding. Fear is closing off, contracting. Yin and Yang. If we fear violence (physical or psychological), we must also fear love; for to love is to be open to the violence we fear. Every front has a back.
The way out of this dilemma is not to work hard to eliminate violence, for to be against violence and to push it away, also pushes us away from love. If we were to work hard enough and establish a totally secure state in which violence were absolutely impossible, we would find ourselves in the most loveless state of all: an absolute totalitarianism. The bigger the front, the bigger the back.
Does this mean that to be loving and expanded, we must also be violent, and that our expression of love can only be in proportion to our expression of violence? Fortunately, it does not. What it does mean is that our ability to love grows with our ability to accept violence; and this applies particularly to the violence within ourselves.
"What?" you are saying, "I am not violent. I am peaceful. It is the violence of others I fear."
Wrong. Everyone in the world would say this. Even the mugger who stalks the streets of New York, even the bombardier who pushes the button that annihilates a city, believes that the violence is "out there," and that he is only doing what is necessary to survive the vicissitudes of a hostile world. But the "hostile world" is us: you and me. Nobody here but us chickens. The world is made up of individuals, and we individuals hold the violence of the world within ourselves.
You may not rob or kill people. You may not even consciously hate anyone, or practice "one upsmanship" or any of the other subtle but aggressive maneuvers that build and strengthen violence, but you are nonetheless a party to violence. Violence can only manifest as a relationship, and all parties to a relationship create that relationship. The Universe at large is perfectly just; what happens to you is always a reflection of yourself. Whether you want to call this Karma or the Golden Rule is unimportant, but it is the law of the Universe: as you sow, so shall you reap. There are no exceptions to this rule.
It is sometimes difficult to see that this is so, because you may sow violence in one form, but reap it in another. Physical violence is only the most dramatic manifestation of the forces of fear and separation, but all of these forces are really the same thing. Hate, greed, selfishness, fraud, conceit, possessiveness, guilt, blame - all the things that separate "me" from "thee" - are all variations of a single force, and the visible manifestation of that force on earth is violence. The man who "never hurt anyone," but who sees himself as isolated and separate from everyone else and closes himself off from the harmony of the whole, is practicing violence as surely as the mugger - and as surely will attract it to himself.
Unlike poles attract. You attract violence into your life precisely to the extent that you reject and fear (and deny) the violence in yourself.
Now, assuming you will humor me up to this point by conceding that there might be some value in this way of looking at the problem, the next question is: why do you contain violence within yourself, and how can you possibly learn to accept it?
The simple answer is that violence is a natural part of your human makeup, and there is nothing wrong with it!
It is not violence, but the inappropriate use of violence which has created the terribly unbalanced and fearful state we are in. Killing a rat, for instance, is violent, but perfectly appropriate to our nature as human beings. If we didn't kill rats, they would soon overrun us and humanity would become infested and disease-ridden. Killing your next door neighbor, however, is not appropriate, because he is not a threat to you. To the contrary, his cooperation with you in the building of human society is one of your most valuable assets for safety and survival.
Violence in its psychological form (the idea of separation) is in the very nature of our experience as human beings. If we could not experience separation at all, we would not even be able to identify ourselves, and could not manifest as separate human beings. So this aspect of violence is at the very root of our existence.
If God considered violence in itself to be wrong or unnatural, He certainly would not have equipped His creatures with teeth, claws, venom, stealth and all of Mom Nature's formidable arsenal of weaponry, and made their survival impossible without the use of these fighting tools.
All of life is steeped in violence; it is as natural and harmonious - and loving - as the rising and setting of the sun, or the cycle of birth and death. The dynamic balance of nature requires that living things fight - and kill - each other. If they didn't, the Earth would become overrun with creatures who would starve to death, suffocate, spread disease and create a truly hellish environment for all of life. In this great regenerative cycle, all creatures live by eating food, in turn becoming food themselves. Violence is the agent of this transformation, and in this role it is the sustainer of life.
Man is no exception to this natural process. He is part and parcel of nature's dynamic flow, including its violent aspects; and this dynamic flow is the very heartbeat of the Universe. It is the way things are. All things are in constant flux and change - nothing is still. One form flows into another, which in turn flows into another in the beautiful and eternal cascade of life; and violence is a necessary and vital part of this great cosmic dance. From the violent separation of consciousness which created us as individual human beings, to the hungry devouring of hydrogen atoms by our life-giving Sun, to the predatory cycle of ecological balance on Earth, violence is nature's great agent of change.
Violence is a part of you because you are a part of the Universe. It is as simple and right as that.
In human society, however, we all know that violence and the fear of violence have gotten out of hand. Rather than working in union to direct the necessaty violence against our natural enemies, human beings often direct their violence against each other, both individually and in groups, and against the healthy ecology of the environment that sustains us all. This inappropriate use of violence is not a healthy part of the natural balance of life. It is disruptive, harmful, fear- producing and unloving. Human society is not helped by misdirected violence of this sort, but is harmed by it.
This imbalance, this wrong use of violence, of directing it in inappropriate channels, has come about for several reasons. One of them is that we rely heavily on our conceptual minds to direct our action, and (as we discussed in the previous chapter) our minds do not have direct access to much of the natural understanding of reality that our bodies and autonomic systems do. Animals flow harmoniously with nature because they are still linked up to this primordial wisdom, while we human beings consciously choose how we will act; and often we are so divorced from nature that we do not have adequate guidelines by which to choose.
I think, though, that the main reason for our misdirected violence stems from the fact that we live in a society which functions by division of labor. People have become specialists, and we delegate much of the violence our nature requires to others. We need protection from wild beasts, for example, but how many of us have ever set a tiger trap or fended off a snarling wolf? We kill animals for food, but the closest most of us come to this violence is to select a nicely cut steak from the supermarket cooler.
We have become strangers to violence, separated from the natural cycles of life. By delegating our violent duties to other people and machines, we have allowed our bodies to become soft and uncoordinated, our senses lulled, our understanding of danger and conglict virtually nil. But it is still a requirement of our survival, still a part of our nature.
Because of the way our society has evolved, the violence in us has become a stranger to us. We do not know or understand anything about it, and we have lost all of our natural ability to deal with it.
Of course we are petrified of violence - we have no idea of what it is or how to meet it. This fear makes us repress our own violence even more, denying and hiding it, which separates us from it more, which makes us fear it more, which makes us repress it more, ad infinitum. This vicious circle of misunderstanding, guilt and repression about violence has turned a natural and healthy part of our human nature into a sick and dangerous obsession; and this violent obsession is characteristic of our society as a whole. In one evening of prime time television you can see countless people (innocent and guilty) beaten, mugged, raped, murdered, threatened, bombed, blackmailed and hung by the neck until dead: this is described as "family entertainment."
Now as long as this obsessive fear and misunderstanding of violence persists, we cannot possibly be fully expanded and loving beings; and this is why T'ai Chi teaches fighting. Not so that we can be violent to our fellow man, but so that we can learn to understand and accept our own violence, lose our fear of it, and deal with it harmoniously in its proper perspective.
Imagine this, please: what if, somehow, you became totally invulnerable - if you knew that it were impossible for you to be harmed. Why then, your fear would vanish totally, wouldn't it? All fear is fear of harm (including mental and emotional harm), and if you can't be harmed, what is there to be afraid of? With no fear, you wouldn't have to protect yourself from anything, and you could afford to be totally open! You would consider no one your enemy, because he couldn't harm you no matter what his intentions, and you could become friendly and loving to even the most violent criminals and thugs. Not having to concentrate on their negative aspects, you could be attentive and appreciative of the positive aspects of everyone and everything. With the fear banished, there would be nothing at all to keep your consciousness from expanding to infinity, accepting and embracing everything!
A pipe dream, you say? Of course. Not even T'ai Chi can make you invulnerable (no matter what the movies and comic books say).
But what good fighting training can and will do is to help you regain your understanding of violence and your ability to deal with it without resistance, without morbid fear or obsession.
Particularly in our unbalanced society today, physical violence is an ever-present possibility, and nothing can make you impervious to attack, or guarantee success in a violent encounter. But you need not fear what you understand; and not fearing violence, you will not attract it.
T'ai Chi does not approach fighting as a game or sport, but as a serious reality. There are no tournaments, belt rankings or any of the other competitive paraphernalia associated with many of the other martial arts that have become popular sports. In T'ai Chi Ch'uan, beyond the elementary exercises, you are actually learning to fight in a violent conflict situation - to deal harmoniously, but powerfully, with real energy and real danger. (This does not mean that you have to get hurt or injured in T'ai Chi practice. The training and sparring exercises are safe, but they are real, not abstract simulation.) By learning to deal with a conflict of energy which requires the awareness of all of the basic animal sense of violence and combative movement within you, you will reawaken the body's primordial wisdom and integrate it into your consciousness. As the training progresses, you move closer and closer to a complete harmony of body and mind in which the conflict between your civilized/conceptual aspect and your animal/instinctual aspect is eliminated.
Any fighing training will do this to some extent, if it is pursued whole-heartedly, but the T'ai Chi Ch'uan system is particularly suited to the task because its method of dealing with hostile energy is non-resistive. A good street fighter is more comfortable and less uptight about the idea of violence than the average person, but he still resists his opponent's attacks in a fight, and thus contributes to the continuation of violence. A T'ai Chi fighter, on the other hand, completely accepts his opponent's attacks, harmonizing his own movements with them without the slightest resistance or opposition. This ability to harmonize with violent energy, to move with it, is the only practical means of completely transcending violence, and this is the method of T'ai Chi.
Resistance is violence. If we resist the idea of violence, or resist violence itself, we are practicing violence. To eliminate resistance, we must understand, accept and harmonize with what it is that we fear. To attain this kind of totally accepting harmony is to possess inner peace; and this inner peace is not fertile soil for fear to flourish in. As fear withers, violence ceases to be attracted, consciousness expands, and love blossoms.
Consciousness of the Supreme Ultimate is nothing less than reaching that center point of balance at which we do not set ourselves apart from this or that; and the root of this separation is in ourselves. By eliminating internal conflict, external conflict automatically vanishes, since it is only a reflection of what is within.
There are only two naturally-occurring physical activities which virtually force you into the present moment, into a state of body/mind integration in which, for a brief moment, the divided self is forgotten and you melt totally into the experience. Can you guess what these two activities are?
Making love and fighting!
When you are in a fight, there is no time for conceptual division, for figuring anything out. It is totally absorbing, immediate. You - all of you - are right there, pitting everything you have against everything the other fellow has. After the fight is over, you might return to divided consciousness, might regret this or that, analyze errors in your tactics, speculate about your opponent's ancestry, etc. But while you are fighting you are high, you are integrated, you are fully in the present moment.
Now of course we can't (and wouldn't want to) go through life constantly fighting in order to keep open and undivided, any more than we can copulate 24 hours a day: making love and fighting are just the most dramatic, physical manifestations of love and violence. But we can learn enough about fighting to know the reality of it as well as we would like to know the reality of lovemaking, and this understanding will allow our consciousness to accept both of the poles of this spectrum, and to expand in open acceptance of everything.
It is possible to know the harmony of the Universe and move easily with it in peace and understanding; but the harmony cannot be known if we are fixed in a state of mind which rejects and denies one side of relity's two-edged sword.
So we learn to fight. We do not seek violence (in fact when we know it, we know how to avoid it), but we come to understand and love the nature of violence as we love all of nature, to be willing to meet is squarely, openly and harmoniously if it is one of the cards reality deals us, and to be free of the divided compulsion that pushes us into violence as we try to push it away.
I'm a little wound down from all of this intellectualizing, so I think I am going to let this chapter roll to a stop. If you meditate on this theme a little, try to get the "feel" of what it would be like, what it would do to your head to be comfortable and relaxed about violence and to be able to meet it without resistance, you should have a pretty good idea of the simple thing I have taken so many words to say. And you will have an even better idea when you begin to do some actual fighting training, which I hope you do. When you know - by actual doing - that violence can be succesfully transcended by accepting it unreservedly, you will see the Biblical injuction to "resist not evil" in a stark new light: it does not exhort you to meekly submit to cruel fate, but to master the forces of "evil" by giving them nothing firm to attack. A billion volts of electricity can be applied harmlessly across the terminals of a pwerful generator; but put a few ohms of resistance between those two points, and whatever is providing that resistance will be burned to a crisp in a split second! What you do not resist cannot harm you.
The next chapter is going to discuss fighting in a direct and practical way, to outline the specific non-resistive combat techniques of T'ai Chi Ch'uan. Please try to keep the ideas of this chapter in mind as you read it, and you may avoid getting caught up in the romance of becoming a "T'ai Chi Superman."