Trusting and trustworthy. All connexion and all relationship are built on these. To be trusting I must be willing to take a risk, which means being open and vulnerable with a strong feeling for positive outcome. To be trustworthy I must be honest and prepared to listen, with a strong root and a good word.
The poor student, poor in the sense of bad, doesn't really want to study, in fact derides and mocks the teaching at every turn, so why do they persist in coming to class? It is to take energy. They come to class for exactly the wrong reasons: not to be fulfilled through study and change but to be filled by the energy of the teacher and the class – basically to steal. What we good students must not fail to realise is that once we have been studying for a few years – once we have settled into the routine and habit of study – once we have heard all the teacher's stories at least once – we become, if only subtly and subliminally, poor students ourselves. Then it is time for some honest soul searching. And possibly a real change.
We are all idealists when young – trapped in our minds – convinced of our immortality. Gradually, as we pass through middle-age, our energy dwindles and with it the structures we've erected: in particular the ego, and we begin to venture, albeit half-heartedly, albeit because we can no longer keep it at bay, into the real. Then, as old-age looms, and with it the aches and pains of decrepitude, reality hits us hard – now we no longer have the energy or spirit to engage it.
The real work begins when I finally accept that I can't realistically have the best of all worlds: that I have to make a choice and commitment to a singular course – a destiny – otherwise life will dribble away, and I'll be left, at the end, wishing I'd had more courage and less distractions – wishing I'd listened to my teacher. Time and energy are limited, pitifully so, considering the enormity of the task. Which to chose: Internal or External?
The internal – secrets whispered from the depths – is not really inside things. It is more like the background from which the myriad things appear, or appear to appear. Those of us drawn to the internal are interested in first principles – in the principle from which others spring – in sources and beginnings – in flux and process – ocean, atmosphere, weather – the virtual. The Dao.
There is a story that Zhang Sanfeng, the mythical founder of taijiquan, would melt a path in the snow as he walked, and that flowers sprang up in his passing. Like all good stories, truth lies not in veracity but in instructive power. When the spirit is on fire one moves differently than cold. There is definitely a feeling of burning or carving a swath through the congestion of space and time. A swath from which entrapped energy escapes and changes the world.
Place one hand gently on the chest, the other firmly on the belly, and relax the mind. You will feel the heart endlessly emptying (hollow chest) and the belly endlessly filling (relaxed dantien). This is the opposite process to the usual one where the belly tightens with anxiety, the energy rises, and the chest swells and hardens with ego. The honesty we talk about, which could also be called maturity, is just the refusal to brace the heart.
The most difficult thing to learn is how to learn. Most of us learn by emulating – imitating – making a copy. This is external and won't necessarily lead to the internal – the secrets of energy and spirit that each lesson contains. For this I need to lose myself in whatever it is – forget myself – and pour my heart and soul into the lesson. The internal is silent knowledge – unvoicable – it is something your either know or don't. As soon as it is expressed – actualized – it is external – of this world. The internal is otherworldly.
Faith starts with trusting the process of change. On a simple and natural level it starts by letting go of the tension that freezes me into an ego – a oneness – so that I become the play between my two fluid halves – left and right – full and empty. Then movement, and hence change, is natural and inevitable – unavoidable. This is taiji, or at least solo taiji, which is always only ever a preparation and model for playing with another.
Life is dominated by two forces: the external force of convention which is moulding me into something acceptable, and an internal force of destiny which is compelling me to be the wonderful singularity I am – begging me to be different. It is always fear that makes me forget my destiny and cling to convention. How successful my life is depends largely upon how skillfully I manage these two forces – how well I pretend to conform whilst inside living a life of pure destiny. How well I yield.
Every powerful tool can be used either to tighten the chains of bondage or to loosen them; it all depends upon who wields the tool. Thought is such a tool; as is taiji. Does one use it to maintain a safety zone or to reach beyond it? And when has the tool served its useful purpose – when should it be abandoned? To what extent has it become a sentimental attachment, a burden to progress?
Life is a succession of moments and what they should all have in common is me – my energy and my willingness not just to engage but to listen and transform. Presence is accepting the responsibility to play a part, and the first principle of taiji is that that part can only be played effectively by first listening. Each letting out of energy is preceded by taking some in. Only then can I be appropriate to the occasion.
When my teacher would invite me to work privately with him his first question upon meeting up was always: "How's your energy?" What he meant by this was not "How do you feel?" or "What are you thinking?" but simply to inquire whether I was well enough practised and well enough rested to engage in useful work. In a sense he was testing my willingness since he already knew how my energy was far better than me. For him the only thing that bore on the work at hand – the beckoning moment – was my willingness and capability – the energy I brought to the table, so to speak. Anything else was mind-generated nonsense which would be better left outside.
A true warrior fights oppression in order to be free. The reason we not only passively accept oppression but actively collude with it – especially the oppression of culture and ego – is that real freedom is terrifying to behold. It threatens everything we are and promises to blast us to oblivion. The strength required to bear freedom is completely different, in both order and quality, to that needed to bear oppression. It is a strength of spirit – a willingness to fight to the death at any – each and every – moment.
Our arrogance – our stupidity – is to believe that thinking uncovers reality. Only when we begin to relax and quieten the mind do we realise that the sole function of thought is to mask reality and put ourselves at centre stage. We are really no more enlightened or mature than selfish children squabbling over the largest slice of cake.
Real wisdom – useful wisdom – is not of the mind but of the body and the energy. It comes when I let go of self-image, a protracted process that is always, and probably necessarily, painful and difficult. A teacher is vital, for guidance and support, because self-image is intimately tied to my values and feelings, and there will always come a point where everything, including my instincts, are telling me to stop the work and rejoin the rat race. A teacher will simply show me that everything I'm holding onto, including the pain and suffering, are illusory, or at least open to interpretation – functions of only my mind.
This so called 'Greek miracle' – the invention of the rational mind – coupled with the so called 'Jewish miracle' – the invention of the one transcendent God – replaced the natural world of energy and spirit with an artificial, 'divine' world of ideas and its deathly processes of reduction and deduction. Then 'understanding' became a matter of being party to a line of argument rather than a tuning into energy with one's faith and natural power. And what we common folk insist on failing to realise is that this shift away from the natural has little to do with truth and enlightenment and everything to do with the invisible powers that be keeping us in willing subservience, indeed slavery.
Resistance is an attempt to stave off the inevitable – to make the past endure beyond its natural life. It is the result of fear – fear of a future full of unknowns. Yielding, on the other hand, softens resistance and encourages change. Spirit is the magic ingredient that influences, if not creates, a future in which I have a vital part – a future that would be impossible without me. This doesn't, of course, mean that it is a future that pleases me or keeps me safe and secure. In fact the opposite is much more likely.
Mind is an empty, bounded space that we clutter with 'worthy' activities: thinking, anxiety, fantasy, visions, hopes, dreams, etc. We foolishly confuse these activities with mind itself, and then we get ourselves into the ridiculous position of being unable to turn them off when we need – when we want to relax or rest or meditate – that is, simply experience pure, unadulterated mind. And such experience is crucially important for those doing internal work. We must discover the boundary of our mind by clearing it of activity and allowing it to fill with energy otherwise we never really know what is internal and what is external – we never really grow up.
Junctures – folds – always have more energy than the straight. This is why it's a good habit to snatch a few minutes taiji each time you are due to change an activity – just after you get up in the morning, just before you go out, just after you return, just before you go to bed. These times, being tightly bound on at least one side, have a power that reverberates into whatever you pack into them.
As human beings we are all gods, albeit petty petulant gods, each creating and transforming our world – constantly rearranging the furniture in the hope that this will distract us from addressing mortality. And this is our terrible failing – the arrogance of presuming that death can be averted until a time convenient for us.
When working with a partner my responsibility is to ensure they achieve something that would have been impossible without my presence and involvement. I must be in the world in such a way that this is always an inevitability – a gracious service, freely given – spirit as challenge to spirit. In this way we bring each other on.