I’ve been quiet for a long while now. Many times I wanted to add something to conversations about health care and social change, but there has been so much fantastic writing and discussion going on that I didn’t feel I needed to chime in. In the abundance of conversations about the turmoil across the world, I’ve tried to balance with wordless practice.
For the first time in many years, I’ve had the time and space to maintain a daily practice of taijiquan and qigong. This steady infusion of movement and meditation is sustaining me in crucial ways, but it’s simply an echo of my teachers and others – that daily practice is necessary for profound change.
Now, in the background the itch to write is stirring. I want to start with this short piece, which I originally wrote for my taiji school (also posted to their website). I’m putting it here because it captures a lot of my experience in relation to the events of 2020, and will help contextualize whatever writing comes next.
At the end of every class at the Rising Sun School of Tai Chi Chuan, we stand in a circle and hold out our hands. One empty, one closed.
“We come here giving, and so our fullness becomes empty.
And also receiving, so our emptiness becomes full.”
The open palm gathers into a fist. The fist unfolds into an open palm.
When you put in the effort to develop your Tai Chi practice, it creates a dynamic within you between the tradition and the individual. You receive tradition through the instructions of 86 movements in the Tai Chi form, through the teachings on breath and eyes and movement generation, through the boxing exercises, through the stories our teachers tell, and through the philosophical ideas that lie behind everything like the quiet yin-yang circle on the studio wall as it catches your eye in class and shifts the ground beneath your conscious awareness.
And as you receive this tradition, you also bring to each class your own personality, interests and insights. So much of the joy of teaching Tai Chi is seeing these personalities swirling together on the studio floor. But even more than that, your unique participation shapes what Tai Chi is in this place and in this moment. As the tradition fills your body, your uniqueness defines how it manifests. And the same is true for every person who dedicates a piece of themselves to building a Tai Chi practice of their own. All of these separate individual manifestations—within each class, within our school, across the globe—together they define the way the tradition is today and how it will be tomorrow.
Tai Chi is like water. Although its essence is constant, its shape changes with the container and the conditions.
So what does this have to do with this new reality we find ourselves in?
Our lives are more separate than ever. We find ourselves in bubbles that are much smaller than we would like. The weaving of tradition and individual created by Tai Chi practice is a balm. It can help us connect to something bigger than ourselves, outside of space and time, while at the same time providing a solitary activity that supports individual physical and mental health.
Tai Chi creates a fullness within the emptiness.
Throughout 2020, I have found refuge in my form practice. When I practice, I can see my teacher in front of me, leading the group through our form, as he has done so many times for us over the years. When I practice, I feel the shadow of my partner as I fold around their imaginary arms and extend through their space. When I practice, I see in my mind’s eye a hundred generations of men and women practicing their form. Each of us standing under different trees, on different ground, by or inside different architectures. But every one of us applying ourselves to the same body of work with a shared purpose.
When I bow, deeply, at the end of the form, I feel the work of my grandmaster Lee Shiu Pak within me, and his teacher within him, and so on way back into the clouds of myth and story. Each one of them gave of themselves to sustain the tradition and bring this practice to me, to this moment now as I am standing under this tree, on this grass, alone.
To apply ourselves to this practice is to forge a connection within your body, across time and space, to a community. So that even when we are alone, all we have to do is give a little of ourselves, we are filled in return.