You turn around and expect to know what you will find. So much so that you don’t even look anymore. You walk always looking forward. You rarely turn around to see where you’ve been. You’re even bored by the thought. Maybe we would pay better attention to our surroundings if we knew a mountain lion was stalking us. Or a bear, perhaps a snake while we sleep, or death itself. We don’t see it coming. We don’t even look.
This tendency applies in martial arts—you cannot always say where your opponent will be or what he will do. If you are superior perhaps, but even then the practice always would have been to take nothing for granted and to focus on what is being presented in the fleeting moment. It could be anything, and uncertainty calls for vigilance, observation and preparedness. Be prepared for unknown things when you turn to see what is there, even if it turns out to be the expected. Quick wits and reflexes can stem from such awareness and understanding.
We think we’re standing up straight, but we’re not. We’re listing to the side. We think we are strong but we’re not. We think we’re agile but we’re not. Our thoughts about ourselves are not what it looks like from the outside. Maybe we should look at ourselves through the eyes of tai chi. No judgment. Just look. Adjust accordingly. Practice on.
A man went to the park one day with a loaded pistol in his jacket. He sat at the edge of a pond contemplating suicide. He struggled for several minutes to build up with the courage to do it. While buried under a cloud of despair and confusion, an elderly Chinese man approached him and asked what was his problem. From across the lawn he had noticed the man was troubled. The suicidal man answered, “I can’t sleep,” not telling the old man everything. The Chinese man, who turned out to be the famous Taijiquan master, T.T. Liang, said, “If I could show you how to sleep, would you be interested in learning?” The man said yes, so Master Liang taught him one move, the first move of the form, for “what felt like days.” The man was so tired and sore from what Master Liang showed him that he eventually slept like a baby and forgot all about killing himself. Some 50 years onward, he still practices and teaches others “how to sleep.”
Sometimes in tai chi you have to choose one aspect of practice over another to help see a path to pursue. This helps to gain exposure to new techniques and energize practice. Often, the moves themselves hint at possibilities revealed just by being attentive to changes in patterns and shapes.
In tai chi, you learn at minimum two overarching methods that make up a practice. In one you focus on what your body is doing, memorizing moves and sequences (the what); for example, giving particular attention to a single movement and the insights it reveals. You can practice it over and over until it’s internalized.
In the other method, you can focus on how you’re doing the moves, or perhaps the underlying intention of a move . . . . fertile ground for discovery. It could be looking for energy, to recognize it, get a good feel for the Qi, realize you can move it and direct where you want it to go in the body; then add good intentions for better health and well being.
In either approach, as you train perceptive ability, you can look for what attracts your attention and how it feels. Difficult to see both simultaneously at first; but if you could, the practice would be much more powerful.
Pouring water from a measuring cup into tea pot. If you hesitate the water backs off. This is hesitation in tai chi. Listening to the dripping of a leaking water faucet at night while you lie in bed. You can’t sleep. You await the next plop, then the next. This is anticipation in tai chi. Standing on one leg and moving in the form unable to maintain your balance, your muscles quiver and you must fall out of form. This is using muscles rather than going deeper to move from a source within. The mind must concentrate more fully in these cases. You must be in the present moment, without hesitation, without anticipation, without clenching and quivering. Tai chi is the resolution of these superficial restraints.
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