A video clip of the great Yang Sau-chung, youngest son of Yang Cheng-fu, doing a Long Form. In view of this demonstration it can be seen just how radical Cheng Man-ching's adaptation of the Form was. John Kells studied this Form with Yang in Hong Kong in the mid-70's. He told me he had great spirit.
The only enemy is fear. This is the basic starting point of all spiritual work. Fear interiorizes us – inhibits that most natural of processes – the giving and receiving of energy. When you are without fear then you are ready and eager to advance into the unknown. So when we disparage thinking, it is only fearful thought – neurotic worrying, rigid rationality, negative dampening of joyful spontaneity. Thought should be the creative response of a turning mind to the novelty of its aspect.
Spiritual breakthrough comes when you finally realise just how boring you are. When you come to suspect that a life without you, your thoughts, feelings, memories, desires, fears, at its centre is not only possible but preferable. A self-centred life is one in which everything that happens is coloured by your ego, as though the ego cast an illuminating light which forces you to see things the way it wants you to see them. The only way to break through the self is to first find something far more interesting to devote your life to. Then the discipline and sacrifice inevitably involved in its practice enable you to slowly build and live a truer life.
Things are born, have a life, and then die. Everything is such, including insights and principles. We must realise that principles are not abstract statements of language, but structures to be brought alive in practice. And then, once conceived and born, that natural life will always end in death, in dissolution, to be reconceived – born again – transformed by a deeper understanding.
Every thing is made up of many parts, all to some extent coordinated, which gives the thing its thingness. Each time I do something, that doing involves and requires a coordinated effort – a rallying together of my mind, my motivation, my energy, my spirit, my body, all the parts that make up my body, and all the parts of the activity. If I repeat that activity as though endlessly, that is, if I set up and perform an endless series, as I would, for example, if I was practising some move that I want to perfect, then, if I relax into the doing, then slowly some if not all of the components that make up the activity will slip out of phase – dislocate – wobble – and there will be a whole array of new energies set up as a result of these new patterns and tensions. This is passion – an energy that's generated when the mind stops inhibiting.
At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, the student needs to commit their soul to their discipline; they need to admit that this wonderful art of taijiquan is interesting, engaging and productive enough to last at least a lifetime. Then the taiji becomes part of you, as you start the long slow process of becoming taiji, which doesn't mean becoming a martial artist or becoming Chinese, but rather becoming energy through yielding. There is then this sense of taiji itself yielding to you – melting and drawing you in to its strange and beautiful world. The problem, as always, is that we resist, out of fear and out of greed. We, weak bourgeois consumers that we are, feel we have a birthright to the best of all available worlds, and so forever pick and choose, and commitment, which always requires a hefty sacrifice, goes out the window. Our curse is our stubbornness. We feel the all-pervasive natural forces drawing us into correct alignment, we are well aware of God's love, yet instead of yielding and letting ourselves be played by this natural wisdom, we resist, and we feel our strength and our power in that resistance, and we become so attached to it that letting go is tantamount to non-existence.
When lecturing, Gregory Bateson, who famously said “We live in a world that's only made of relationships” would pose his audience a question. He would point to the jug of water beside him, and then to the glass, and ask where the difference between those two objects resides. It is an interesting question, because in a sense, relationship is a gathering, a set, an assemblage, an ecology, a shimmering of differences.
Every thing is not just different from every other thing; every thing is also different from itself. By this statement we don't mean different from any possible representation of that thing, or different now to what it was a moment ago, we mean that a thing, in its being, is solely its difference from itself. In other words, identity does not exist, in itself, except in worlds constructed by the human mind, for example, the world of mathematics. Identity is the wishful thinking of a fearful mind. But even mathematics, when pushed to its limit, confronts infinity: for example, the set of all positive integers is obviously infinite, though bounded at one end. The set of all even positive integers is also infinite yet contains half the numbers of the first set, so there are degrees of infinity. Hence, infinity in a grain of sand.
Access to the next level will always elude me until I have it in me to give a great gift. Not only the gift of commitment, which is more a promise, but a gift of energy and of spirit, which forever bind me to the deeper path the next level proffers. Freedom only comes when my spirit is completely bound up with something far greater than myself, when I have given so much that there is absolutely no chance of escape. In a sense, this is the same gift, albeit on a smaller scale, that I should give whenever I encounter the Other – the gift of unconditional connexion, with no concern for my own safety.
Of all the senses, vision is the most invasive – it strives to keep things at bay. Akin to striking the ground with my feet as I walk, it unsettles what I look at and hardens me. When I look at something I invariably put myself first as lord and judge of what's perceived, largely because perception, being a complex synthesis of reception, recognition, naming and categorizing, is too active and constructive – too arrogant and too arrogating. I must learn to use my eyes softly – compassionately; beckon rather than reject; encourage rather than reduce; linger and embrace rather than dismiss.
One of the best learning aids is the video camera. Not only can you often see where you are making technical errors, and where and how your posture can be improved, but, on the long term, you also learn to watch yourself compassionately rather than critically. Patience and perseverance inevitably lead to softness.
The taiji practitioner acts as double agent. On the one hand she strives to bring chaotic systems into equilibrium and on the other she works to disequilibrate stable systems. Miraculously, taiji relaxation achieves both. A system is chaotic because it is agitated, over-stimulated, anxious, and relaxation will dissipate that excess energy and allow the system to settle. A system is stable generally because it has hardened with habit and fear – it has become chronically tense, locking out change and the agents of change – those inevitable destabilizing forces internal and external to every system. Relaxation simply releases those forces and allows change to take place. And hence every healthy system will tend to swing one way AND the other, and equilibrium, ever tenuous and evasive, that is, dynamic, is achieved, or at least approached, by allowing stabilizing and destabilizing tendencies to operate together. This is what makes taiji so endlessly difficult – as soon as I manage to bring some order and understanding to a system, it changes into something else because the taiji has activated and given permission to those ever present agents of change.
So what I'm proposing now is that my oneness is my spine – I have one spine and it's central – and so lower spine vertical – this beautiful principle of taiji – is how my oneness is contained in the field of gravity – and my twoness is my two legs – single-weightedness. So single-weightedness is the principle that splits me into two – but of course I'm two and I'm one and in a sense the moving meditation aspect of taiji – this thing that . . . it's as though I'm sitting – I'm doing seated meditation but what I'm sitting on are these two legs that are moving around so I have the oneness of the seated meditation – the spine – which is my central verticality – and the moving, the roaming, the roving, is the two feet which in a sense represent conflict – and harmony as well – working together – and choices – I have to chose where to go – which direction shall I move in – I'm no longer stuck to one spot with no choice but to just be there . . .
When my son (soon to be 21) was a baby, at that noble age when they sit beautifully straight, before the strain of walking has corrupted their posture, he used to sit and play with his toys, bolt upright and totally engrossed. Yet every time an aeroplane would fly by, without lifting his head, he would point up to the sky to acknowledge its passage. This was energetic attention – his focus on the toy also caused his awareness to expand and embrace his whole environment. And this ability – to focus on what's before and at the same time to expand the back to envelop the world – came from the beautiful poise of the head atop his perfectly straight and vertical spine. If you allow the head to crane forward in an attempt to give greater attention to what's in front, then you lose the bigger picture and you lose energy; central equilibrium – the absolute requirement of any energetic system – has gone.
The teacher is an intermediary between the teaching and the student, in the same way that a priest is an intermediary between God and the common believer. But the good teacher, like the good priest, is not just an interpreter, but someone with the heart to tell the same old stories and make them new – as though for the first time. This ability enables them to gather the attention of their students, bundle it with their own spirit and that of the teaching, and transform everyone involved. Without good students, those ready (rather than willing) to be transformed, it cannot happen. It is simply a matter of joining forces with others in order to have the energy to break through. Healing and prayer are largely the same.
Taiji teaches the four basic skills required to become a passionate and compassionate human being:
- The ability to instantly create a nourishing and peaceful space for the Other to enter. To be effective this space should be turning, or returning, like a mirror, so when the Other enters they are confronted by themselves. We call this yielding.
- The ability to instantly penetrate and enter the Other's space (body/heart/mind). We call this attacking.
- A route into the Earth: a sink for yielded energy, and a supply of attacking energy. We call this rooting.
- The ability to stay connected, even when it appears that communication has ceased. We call this sticking.
Never use force. Use energy rather than force. This is one of our fundamental tenets. You can't force love. You can't make someone love you. Your love for them, if it is true to overflowing, will do two things: it will encourage you to hold them in your heart, and it will embolden you to create circumstances where they cannot help but become aware of that love.
What the taiji symbol depicts so beautifully is that as well as Yin and Yang twisting and twining around each other, they also each contain the other. Pure Yin, as soon as it is proposed, thought, conceived, allowed, already contains a taint of Yang; and vice versa. This is a natural law – the impossibility of absolute purity (or absolute anything for that matter). In taiji we say "Hardness comes from softness", or "Taiji is the art of concealing hardness with softness" – there is always an understanding that one comes from the other. This is very difficult to fully grasp – embody – it requires my mind to become the container of Yin and Yang, rather than focusing on or preferring either one. My mind stands back and envelops, and lets Yin and Yang play it out, like two children. This is yielding mind.
Hospitality is not just welcoming the stranger into the home, the hearth, the heart; it doesn't stop with cordiality, with offering nourishment. Hospitality is, above all, putting the Other first and listening to their stories. Being prepared to listen and to learn. Without this the Other is always excluded, no matter the level of generosity they receive.
Centuries ago, when thinkers had more depth than they do now, humans were considered to have no essence. There did not exist an essential humaness, or even an essential humanity. Humans possessed such a broad territory, such a wealth of becomings, such a range, from animal baseness to angelic nobility, that one couldn't define them. As soon as a definition was proposed the only thing you could be sure of is that somewhere someone was already changing into something not bound by that definition. And as soon as one described territory deemed completely out of bounds to humanity, humans somewhere were already working to occupy it. And because of this lack of essence humans developed souls, and the more they struggled against essence, against the norm, the deeper their souls became.