In the Grip of T’ai Chi and Beginner’s Mind

From time to time I’ve been asked why I began the practice of T’ai Chi. The answer is that I need regular exercise and I have bad knees. My left knee will swell up if I do any kind of exercise that compresses the knee joint. Removing knee joint compression from my exercise efforts excludes running, tennis, basketball, handball, jump rope, soccer, football and a number of other activities that I might enjoy as an exercise activity. Swimming doesn’t hurt my knees, but it bothers my shoulders.

The reason why I began to practice T’ai Chi and the reasons why I continue to practice T’ai Chi are very different. Back when I first started meditating I managed to scare myself witless with the reality I found through meditation. I desperately wanted to integrate the reality I found in meditation into my life – but doing so was driving me crazy. I took up Hatha Yoga for a time after that first difficult experience with meditation. Essentially, Hatha Yoga let me meditate without meditating. I could keep in touch with the ultimate reality I found in meditation, but I was able to look at that reality from a much more constrained viewpoint than the viewpoint mediation provided. I find T’ai Chi to be like Hatha Yoga. When I do T’ai Chi I get in touch with the reality I found in meditation – but in an indirect way.

I like T’ai Chi better than Hatha Yoga. Almost all Hatha Yoga postures are static. Hatha Yoga postures and T’ai Chi forms share a common use of the whole body. This ‘whole body’ approach to exercise may not be immediately apparent in a Hatha Yoga practitioner’s practice unless the practitioner is a master. With T’ai Chi it’s quite clear from the very beginning that the practitioner has to engage fully with body, mind and spirit. T’ai Chi is a form of moving mediation.

T’ai Chi is a martial art. It is considered a ‘soft’ martial art. Soft martial arts often express their martial aspect by redirecting an attacker’s force in a way causes the force of the attack to be used against the attacker. The ‘hard’ martial arts more often oppose force with force. There is a serious continuing discussion in T’ai Chi circles about the validity of T’ai Chi that is taught without the martial aspect of the T’ai Chi art. I agree with the people who hold that removing the martial aspect from T’ai Chi turns T’ai Chi into a strange kind of exercise based on T’ai Chi. Every position in T’ai Chi can have a martial application. Most T’ai Chi teachers can demonstrate several different applications for each T’ai Chi position. The martial application for a position/movement in a T’ai Chi form gives validity to the structure of the position/movement. When the structure is correct Chi can be expressed. When the structure is correct, students describe a sense of wholeness present when they practice T’ai Chi.

My own journey with T’ai Chi began with Yang style slow set. This is the traditional 108 step form. From the very beginning, I could tell that T’ai Chi was something I wanted to explore with passionate intensity. Unfortunately, after about ten years, my Yang style work slowly closed due to asthma. I just couldn’t physically perform in a way that I felt was appropriate to the beauty of the discipline presented by the form.

I didn’t immediately get help for my asthma. But I did get help. When I realized I could be physically active again, I looked for a T’ai Chi class close to home. I found a former senior student from the Yang style school I had attended teaching nearby. The only problem I could see was that she was teaching Chin style T’ai Chi. Chin style T’ai Chi is the source for all the other kinds of T’ai Chi, including the Yang style that I had studied. But, Chin style and Yang style are very different at the practical level.

My Chin style teacher suggests that I need to ’empty my bowl’. If my understanding of T’ai Chi is totally based on what I learned from Yang style – that understanding isn’t going to work for Chin. Most of the Yang style knowledge that I acquired in ten years’ daily practice will have to be discarded.

As I learn the Chin style Old Frame form, I see and understand much of the fundamental structure of what is happening in the Chin style class. Many of the fundamentals are the same between Yang and Chin styles. I do my best to absorb all this information. That absorption task is impossible because there is more information than I can possibly retain. I have to hit a mental ‘reset button’ several times in each class. Occasionally, I just go sit down and watch the class. I’m making slow progress learning the Chin style Old Frame form. I feel like the proverbial child with his nose pressed against the candy store window.

It seems that I’ve come back to Beginner’s Mind. I do associate hitting the ‘reset button’ with Beginner’s Mind. The beautiful and difficult truth of T’ai Chi is that every step in the form presents a new opportunity for Beginner’s Mind. I’m very fortunate to have such a profound spiritual challenge presented to me. I feel certain that I am engaging this challenge in a way that will achieve a positive result.

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