Wisdom and Power: A Philosophical Approach to T'ai Chi

Chapter 11:
Tying It All Together

Having arrived at that point in the book when it is time to try to pull together the various bits and pieces of T'ai Chi scattered throughout the previous chapters into a more or less organic conception, I find myself faced with something of a dilemma.

The problem is this: T'ai Chi is both a discipline and a non- discipline, and to summarize it in either of these two lights at the neglect of the other is to present an essentially false picture. Similarly, the philosophy of the Supreme Ultimate upon which T'ai Chi is based is both a specific collection of definite concepts and a non-specific broad understanding of the balanced, harmonious nature of reality; and it is important to grasp both aspects.

I will try to explain what I mean.

T'ai Chi is certainly a specific discipline, in the sense that it represents a definite body of knowledge, a particular collection of techniques and training methods with a consistent philosophical basis and clearly identifiable goals.

On the other hand, it is not a specific discipline, since any such discipline can be defined; and, being defined, excludes that which is outside the definition. But the whole point of T'ai Chi is to reach a level of understanding and experiencing reality from which it is not necessary to exclude or reject anything.

Of course, this dilemma is actually more illusory than it is real, since it only arises when we try to put the concepts of T'ai Chi into words and not when we experience its living reality. Still, you will appreciate that it is difficult to write a book without words, so for the moment the dilemma is real.

At first glance it might seem that this dilemma could be resolved by separating means from ends (e.g., the end of T'ai Chi is to be totally open and accepting of everything, but to reach this end we must employ the means of a closely-defined and rigid discipline). However, since the Supreme Ultimate is a Way of Life whose teachings are meant to apply to day-to-day living, its means are its ends and cannot be separated. It is foolish to speak of learning non-resistance by resisting everything which does not lead to that goal.

If by this time it appears that I am baiting you, deliberately raising a problem which I know full well I am not prepared to resolve, I must plead guilty. Not, however, because of any perverse or sadistic streak on my part, but because I have taken it on myself to write a book about a subject which contains within itself this very paradox, and because I am well aware that you will run head-on to this fork in the road at some point in your progress; I don't think it is fair to let you leave the book without some forewarning about it.

I have said that it is a paradox; and so it is, at least in the two-valued logic system on which our language is constructed. Still, there is a way of dealing with it, and I will try to give you some clues about this way.

Let's create an example: suppose you have been doing some T'ai Chi exercises, working on balance, meditating and making an effort to see the events of your daily life in terms of Yin and Yang according to the Law of Change. You have found that some positive good has resulted from your endeavors; your energy level is high, your self-confidence has improved, patterns and events in your life are making more sense to you, you do not seem to be finding yourself in as much conflict as before, etc. You consider yourself a student of T'ai Chi and think that you are on the path. Fine.

But now, after working out for a few months, you find that when your practice time rolls around you can't muster much enthusiasm for it. Perhaps you can make yourself go through a half-hearted workout, but you are not really putting yourself into it. Even though you can still see the value of T'ai Chi training, for some reason your natural inclination leans more toward going out drinking with the guys than toward going through the T'ai Chi form.

So here is the dilemma: if you make yourself work out even though you really don't want to, you will be working through resistance and will gain little of real value; you may even make yourself dislike T'ai Chi, and you will certainly lose sight of the all- embracing acceptance, openness and balance which are the foundations of the art. On the other hand, if you go out drinking instead, you will be directing your attention away from T'ai Chi, you will start to get out of shape and forget the moves, and begin to fear that you have strayed from the Way, forgotten your ideals, and don't really have what it takes to master T'ai Chi.

How do you deal with this dilemma? Very simply: make a choice. Decide (for the day) either to practice or to go out drinking. Which alternative you choose is not particularly important, but that you choose rather than drifting around in default of choice is crucial. The power of choice in the face of alternatives is the distinctively human characteristic by means of which we learn and evolve, progressively growing in our comprehension and mastery of reality. It is a quality of choice that it must be made in the here and now; deliberate, conscious choice cannot be made automatically or by rote. To make a choice you must come fully into the present moment, to be aware of precisely what the alternatives are and how you actually feel about each of them. And since the goal of T'ai Chi training is to be able to accept and follow the Ch'i of every moment as it actually is, at all times and in every circumstance, by making a conscious choice you are practicing T'ai Chi fully and consistently; even if your choice is to get drunk rather than work out!

What I am saying is that there are many "levels" of T'ai Chi. Which level you are practicing at the moment depends - not surprisingly - on where you are at the moment. The highest level in the pursuit of the Supreme Ultimate can be practiced fully and without conflict at all times simply by resolving not to resist anything, but to get the most out of every experience; that is, to view everything you do and every situation you encounter as an opportunity to gain additional understanding about yourself and the world, about the way things unfold and interact. In this way you will gradually acquire a profound understanding and "feel" for the flow of change, and an ability to fit yourself into it harmoniously in any situation. When you have acquired this ability, you can be said to have mastered T'ai Chi.

In other words the "answer" to the dilemma is that there is no answer to the dilemma, nor does there need to be.

On one of my notebooks I have inscribed a saying I have carried with me for so long I no longer remember where it came from. It reads:


This thought has come to my rescue on innumerable occasions when I have been confronted with the necessity of making a difficult decision and found myself tightening up and losing perspective. It says to me, "Be here now. Don't worry about what you wanted last week, or about what plan you are supposed to be following, or about whether anyone will think you are being consistent or not. Look at this reality in this moment - the only one that exists - and just do what is natural."

The simple fact is that no appeal to any previous choice or predetermined principle will ever tell you what is the "right" decision to make now. This does not mean that there is anything wrong with long range planning or setting future goals; it does mean the recognition that the "you" who made the plans has changed and evolved since then, and that the "you" of here and now must evaluate and consciously reaffirm them if they are to be presently meaningful. The essence of life is change, and any "answer" that can be found and uncritically adhered to is nothing more than an attempt to freeze reality at one point in the unfolding patterns of change. To ignore change is to stop life.

T'ai Chi can be viewed at times as a formal discipline, at times as a non-discipline, and each viewpoint is correct when it is the natural one. It is a set of ideas and methods whose meaning and purpose are as flexible as you are; its reality is determined by you at every moment of your encounter with it. Let me assure you of this: no matter how ardent your interest in T'ai Chi at the moment, you will lose interest in it from time to time. No matter how great a level of calm and relaxation you attain, you will become tense and unbalanced sometimes. No matter how profound your understanding and acceptance of reality, you will find yourself being narrow, confused, tense and uncertain, and that is alright. It is precisely the acceptance of these periods of darkness and limitation when they come that allows us to flow through them and continue in our progression toward light and love.

A casual acquaintance in a roadside diner once offhandedly gave me a most profound philosophical insight, at a moment when I really needed it. He said, "It's okay to be an asshole sometimes." It is; and only our willingness to be far less than we wish to be will permit us to gradually narrow the gap.

In bringing this book to a close, I want most of all to leave you with the understanding that T'ai Chi is an avenue of personal transformation. As I mentioned in the very opening pages of my preface, our world is on the cusp of a global change in awareness, an evolutionary leap in consciousness to a whole new way of perceiving ourselves and our relationship to the world. Just as the agricultural revolution in mankind's prehistory gave rise to a change from primitive hunting culture to what we now know as civilization, so the "holistic" revolution that is now upon us due to the breakdown of our social, economic, scientific and cultural models will give rise to a radically new world - a world of perceptions, values, and institutions as different from those of today as modern civilization is from that prehistoric savage.

I will not discuss this topic in greater detail, because it is not the subject of this book (you will find several excellent discussions of the emerging new "paradigm" of reality, from many different perspectives, in the Bibliography). But the importance of T'ai Chi is that it is not merely another description of the values and modes of being that will be embraced in a transformed world, but a practical means of making the transformation for oneself.

The nature of the transformation is a change from our narrow "either-or" way of seeing, thinking and acting to a broader, more organic mode of being in which we recognize ourselves as participants in the harmonius unfolding of life rather than as separate and isolated egos struggling to carve out a space for ourselves in an essentially hostile environment that is "other than" us. Making this transformation - on a personal level - means changing the way our nervous systems have been programmed to perceive and react, and this is the purpose of T'ai Chi.

An organic overview tells us that all the techniques of T'ai Chi aim at the attainment of natural balance through non-resistance. I have called this natural balance the "Way of the Supreme Ultimate," and the means of attaining it "following the flow of Ch'i." These terms, and the numerous others I have used in this book, are unimportant in themselves - "the name that can be named is not the true name" - and their meanings are lost if they are taken to refer to any static set of ideas. They merely point to the desirability (and the means) of seeing the continuously altering flow of reality directly, for yourself, and of adjusting yourself continuously to its changing demands. To pierce the veil of definitions, labels, tags and concepts that tell us what is "supposed" to be; to live in eternally present, unresisting direct contact with what is - this is T'ai Chi.

The basic premise:

Reality is one whole; a continuously unfolding, perfectly balanced and impartially just process. Everything in nature follows an orderly, harmonious and comprehensible pattern of development: the Law of Change. Man is a microcosm of nature, containing and reflecting all of the different forces of nature within himself; in the broadest sense, each man is all of nature, only considered from one particular point of view.

The Human Problem:

Man resists the Law of Change.

In the process of rational development, man has forgotten who he is. He no longer understands or follows the way of nature; but instead tries to make nature fit into his own narrow and one- sided ideas of the way things "should" be. But nature cannot be unbalanced, and if man resists its flow in one direction, the balance is automatically restored in another direction.

The entire source of man's unhappiness, his tension, his weakness and disease, his lack of satisfying values, his inhumanity to man and his spiritual poverty is his resistance to the Law of Change as it manifests in all the spheres of experience.

The Goal of T'ai Chi:

The Way of the Supreme Ultimate is a method of learning to understand and follow the natural harmony of all life as it continually unfolds in the here and now. It accomplishes this by integrating body and mind, moving naturally, letting go of resistance and learning to maintain continuous, dynamic balance in the midst of perpetual change.

The Methods:

  • Movement. Learning to move in the way natural for our bodies directly re-connects us to the flow of nature. The patterns of energy flow and transformation along our meridian channels perfectly mirrors the Law of Change operating in all transformations throughout the Universe: as above, so below. Our human bodies are the product of the interaction of these eternal principles with a log course of evolutionary development, and are not just a random arrangement of bones and muscles that will work well any old way we decide to use them. Gorillas do not move like tigers; birds do not move like snakes. There is a particular way of moving that is natural for man, which is coded into our DNA (and described in the I Ching). The T'ai Chi form is carefully based on this particular way of movement, and learning this form will teach us to use our bodies in perfect harmony with nature.

  • Meditation. Deliberately quieting the mind and focusing it turnas attention away from tension, dualistic thinking and confusion. It clears awareness of the tendency to perceive and respond to things in conditioned or programmed ways, and gradually approaches the condition of consciousness in which there is no separation between observer and observed; in which reality is appreciated directly, the way it actually is - an integrated, evloving and perfectly balanced whole. Such direct experience is the only "absolute" knowledge possible; it is the highest (and lowest) order of abstraction, out ow which all ideas, modes of perception and understandings are built. To know anything you must directly experience it, and meditation is a means of directly experiencing - therefore knowing - the harmonious unity of all life.

  • Energy. The T'ai Chi form, pushing hands, standing and sparring exercises are ways of directly experiencing the flow of energy and of learning how to stay balanced in the face of various forces pushing and pulling at us. They will teach us to sense and control our own powerful intrinsic energy (Ch'i). Gaining proficiency in these exercises is a way of learning to meet change - even violent change - with calm and non-resistance. It is a way of directly experiencing the fact that imbalance always defeats itself.

  • Fighting. The way of nature is continuous change. If change is resisted, violence results, and the most dramatic form of violence we can personally encounter is mortal combat: fighting. Fear of violence is fear of change, and the inability to deal with it. Learning to fight in the non-resistive "internal" style of T'ai Chi Ch'uan is a method of learning to understand and accept change in even its most violent aspects; and of conquering fear, which is the biggest barrier to realizing the natural state of balanced harmony.

  • Philosophy. The ideas and concepts of T'ai Chi (including this book) are valuable only to the extent that we are able to recognize them as a "map" of reality, and do not mistake them for reality itself. With this qualifier, however, they have great usefulness in directing conscious attention to the pursuit of balance, and in pointing out methods through which direct experience may be gained. The traditional sources of T'ai Chi philosophy are the I Ching, the Tao Teh Ching and the T'ai Chi Classics. The I Ching (Book of Change) is an allegorical portrayal of the Law of Change which permeates life. Studying its patterns will lead to an understanding of how Yin and Yang combine to produce the effects of the world, and of the way these effects may be expected to change and flow as they interact. The Tao Teh Ching is a clear and beautifully poetic description of what it is like to live in perfect harmony with the Way of the Supreme Ultimate (the Tao). The T'ai Chi Classics are a collection of writings by the early founders of T'ai Chi Ch'uan which explain the principles of movement and energy control in the T'ai Chi fighting style.

  • Love. The cultivation of love is the highest aim any human being can have. Love is the binding force and root principle of all existence. To give love is to be a channel for the expression of life and light, a vessel for the divine. Far above generals and statesmen, sages and kings, is the one who loves, for she/he is the possessor of eternal life.

It is time now to bring this book to a close, and I will do so with the reminder that neither this brief recapitulation of the ideas we have discussed, nor the entire contents of this volume, are an exhaustive presentation of what is, after all, a limitless subject. Still, I hope it may be broad enough to provide a flexible springboard for your dive into the brisk and invigorating waters of T'ai Chi. Once in these waters you will soon find the currents that fit your own stroke.

I hope you have found this little book useful or amusing - I had a great time writing it. Happy swimming!

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