Though peace, true peace as opposed to the fantasy of peace, is never easy, is always precarious, precipitous, liable to break into conflict or slide into laziness at any moment. In a sense peace is always approximate – a net result – hanging in the balance. It's practice requires resilience and intensity: tough enough to take knocks yet sensitive and skillful enough to maintain balance – to yield.
Real significant change will always cause problems of some sort. This is because change comes from the spirit, and the body and mind are, to some degree, either reluctant or unready. The classic in our game is the keen student who ups their practice only to injure themselves or come down with a flu. If you understand this process then you can see it as a sign of progress rather than an indication that your efforts to change are unwise.
Every generation of young people has to fight fascism. For mine, it was the overt fascism of the Nazis and their allies. For theirs, in relative peace time, it is the covert fascism of the square world. Usually this fight is lost, because young people fail to root out the seeds of fascism within themselves.
To break free – to truly live – as spirit and energy – I must first, paradoxically, confine myself inside a disciplinary structure that enables me to acquire skill and energy. The idea is that I obey orders from outside – not those of the ego – I enslave myself – my rampant self – to subdue it – humble it. This is the only way. If anyone says otherwise then they're trying to sell you something.
In taiji we build a structure (the Form) which we then use to destroy other structures: tensions, misunderstandings, hopes and fears – the ego. This is the intention at any rate. The problem is that the ego will always outfox such a ploy – will always turn and adapt whatever we use against it to its own advantage. What swings the fight the other way – the way of spirit – is our interactions with the Other – the obstreperous, intractable, unfathomable Other – whom we can always guarantee to be far more interested in themselves than in me.
The mediocre student wants the best of all worlds. He wants to retain all the comfort and security of his egocentric existence, yet also experience the glamour and freedom of spiritual or energetic reality. What I call the New Age Fallacy. Unfortunately such a conflict of interests leaves him torn, and forever stuck in the mire of cowardly mediocrity. The answer to this dilemma? Sacrifice and discipline. Or get off the pot and stop wasting your teacher's time.
Rest assured that if you practice what your teacher tells you then you will improve. If, however, you practice your version of what your teacher told you then the chances are you will not. Also, if you have a constant need to be reassured as to that progress then you are probably neither improving nor practising correctly. Look at yourself. Search for that minuscule vestige of honesty, and develop it. In this there is no help – no one else can do the work for you. Meditation is taking responsibility for who you are.
The test for us all is to become a good student. A warrior. A servant to spirit rather than a slave to ego. A warrior is someone who has broken the chains of victimhood. She never complains, never blames, never doubts and never regrets. She does exactly what needs to be done, with a ruthless efficiency. Her timing is impeccable, so much so she appears to know the future. She doesn't – she simply creates the future. Paradoxically, these qualities, rather than making a heartless, unfeeling monster, actually allow the heart to burst open, revealing a humble, compassionate person – full of feeling yet free of emotion – acutely aware that they are connected to everything, and therefore responsible for everything.
A warrior is literally someone who wages war – a fighter. In the context of spiritual work a warrior is someone who struggles to face things as they really are, whereas a coward is someone all too willing to retreat into their own (or other peoples') thoughts, feelings and opinions about things. The warrior strives to always engage with spirit whereas the coward with ego. Spirit and ego are not complimentary opposites, they are mutually exclusive, they destroy each other. So a warrior is a gleaming spirit, and a coward a selfish ego.
Many are called but few are chosen. This potent aphorism certainly applies to taijiquan. Of the thousands that start, how many continue with it through their life? A tiny percentage for sure. And what is it that compels those that continue to do so? What, deep down, motivates them? I suspect that the feeling of taiji – that beautiful, soft, relaxing flow – that yielding to pretty much everything – reminds the student of something they had once but have long since lost: the warmth of the womb, a mother's protective love, the excitement at being around a long departed father, a time of peace and contentment lodged vaguely somewhere in the distant past. So taiji is a search for lost time, a time that our subsequent experiences and our present misery won't let us access. This isn't dwelling in the past, but coming to terms with it and putting it to rest so that we can stand before the Other, complete and open.
The present is the connexion – the juncture – between future and past. By dwelling in the present we shore up time and enable life to flow. This is our duty as meditators. In no way do we ignore past or future, we just begin to be aware of them differently. The future is no longer an abstract plane where we dump our fears and expectations, but a vast sea of energy, and the past is no longer an inventory of memories and experiences but an outlet for the future as it passes through us. In this sense time does not exist, or only as misconception. When we live truly in the present then our actions have an ineradicable finality – a power unavailable to those who don't. We effectively heal the wound of time.
True relaxation is always a relaxation into community, never into self. A release of bad tension into good tension – into connexion. In this sense none of us are individual, we are all eminently dividual – not only am I member of community but I am also community myself. The only thing that cannot be divided is nothing.
Consider the Form a vessel that your work – your taiji – fills with energy. To start with the Form must be created – learnt – and then repaired and corrected when it starts to leak. The Form will begin to fill with energy when the mind can keep a thread going, when the mind has learnt to be continuous through time.
In taiji – indeed in life – we distinguish between two types of tension. One – the good type – is the tension between opposing tendencies, a tension responsible for energy, for movement, for change, and indeed for life. It is the tension, or rather the interaction – the play – between yin and yang that the taiji symbol so elegantly depicts. The other tension – the bad one – is a chronic locking up, a withdrawal from community and from life – a disconnexion – that blocks the flow of energy. Once you start working with the good tension, the bad one becomes revealed and can be tackled. The roots of bad tension are always psychological, and always painful to confront, but, unfortunately, there is no other way.
Meaning is heavy. Nothing has meaning of itself. Everything is intrinsically meaningless. We give things meaning to facilitate our connexion with them – to establish a relationship. So we end up not relating to things directly but to the meaning we have invested those things with, which, in a sense, is a relationship with ourselves. This masturbatory process is not the path to understanding, which has nothing to do with meaning and everything to do with emptying of self in order to connect directly – a creative connexion, essentially light and lively, which in no way weighs on the thing connected to, which, if anything sets that thing free of its own meaningful structures.
The difference between the poor student and the good student is largely a matter of maturity. The poor student studies for the sake of approbation – they need compliments or "experiences" to maintain their interest. They put great strain upon the teacher, whose sole duty they feel is to keep them amused – motivated. The good student, on the other hand, has no interest in experiences, in how they feel, in what they think, or in what anyone else thinks. Is all they desire is to work because they understand that it is only through work that they have the slimmest of chances to cut through the superficial ego and achieve some sort of depth, some sort of reality, of freedom.