The season of growth is upon us with a timely reminder that conscious growth towards maturity – particularly in our art – is a choice we make each moment. Like plants toward the sun, let us move forward wholeheartedly toward the promise of our school’s mission of bringing peace and health to the world via tai chi.
What does that mean? What do we have to offer that other schools don’t?
One aspect is that we have the potential to bring forth a deep and powerful facet of tai chi chuan that is quite often overlooked. In our struggle to “better ourselves” and learn the skills demonstrated by the accomplished martial artists in our community, we sometimes lose sight of the benefit of our embodiment of touch and sensitivity when we practice push hands for the benefit of all. I propose to you that balance and harmony are the true benefits we can offer the world through our own embodiment, presence and touch.
Truly the skills practiced in push hands can give us a protective advantage, but beyond that, they confer on us the ability to transmit balance in a way beneficial to all with whom we come in contact.
Here are some of my thoughts from recent months, shared with you in the hope that it will find and nurture a spark within each of you.
Love to you all.
The challenge for our school in this 40th year of its existence is to empower apprentices to grow into the maturity of teaching from an embodied understanding of the fundamental principles of Tai Chi. This change moves us beyond depending on the “as told to” model we have provided for beginning apprentices, and into the possibility of inspired expressions based in our own embodiment.
Tai Chi Chuan, although often called the “supreme ultimate martial art”, is from our view better translated to be “the martial art (chuan) that practices the “Supreme Ultimate” (Tai Chi – the principle of yin/yang balance)”.
Our school had a huge head start in this regard because all the early students and teachers were studying with the Arica School, founded by Oscar Ichazo in 1968, a School of Wisdom and Knowledge in the tradition of the ancient schools of knowledge, which envisions a humanity with the secure and conclusive destiny of becoming unified as one body, one spirit. Oscar Ichazo emphasizes a strong grounding in what, in our school, we call dantian awareness, and recognizes tai chi chuan as a thorough method of practicing and cultivating this awareness. Our school came about when a group of Aricans, led by Patrick Watson with his tremendous embodiment of tai chi, thanks to his studies with Prof. Cheng Man-Ch’ing and Oscar Ichazo, decided to build our school with a transcendental perspective towards a united humanity and an aspiration to make it available to all.
The thing is, other than Patrick, none of us had an embodiment of the art to any great degree at that point, so we needed to learn. Patrick took the methodology of Prof. Cheng, drew from his experience in Arica, swim coaching, and theater and with the help of a few aspiring Bodhisattvas, set about describing the team teaching method we have used in this school for these many years.
The basic tenets of our apprenticeship (apprentices because we continue to learn) was: be as clear as possible with instruction of what we knew without embellishment beyond what we knew. The challenge was to teach from our bodies, to “keep it real” and to continue to learn in the process.
This method, with its accompanying tremendous amount of detail, has been both our mainstay and our biggest distraction. The thread of the teaching has been consistent from the very start. The basic principles of tai chi chuan can be expressed simply: relax, focus in the dantian, find balance, move with that balance, connect with others, and impart that balance to them across your connection.
The entire practice of the art of tai chi chuan and the components that we utilize – form, sensing hands, sword form and fencing, pole, and simpler energy work like Roots & Branches Five Element Qigong and The Eight Ways – all have transformative qualities. As we all know, practicing any of these brings great benefit. Healthful, slow, conscious movement is good at any time. The potential, however, goes far beyond the health benefits by providing us with a way to look inside ourselves and to shift our perspective. The start is ostensibly physical, but it becomes immediately apparent that a huge part of the challenge is how we treat ourselves emotionally and intellectually. So often we are stymied with judgment and despair, frustration and anger, fear and defeat. Detachment from this existential battle of our ego with itself (what Patrick Watson often referred to as “the real challenge of the warrior”) and the potential for finding peace and security inside ourselves are tremendous opportunities which this art – and particularly our school – offers. Dantian awareness is the key. Starting as a physical awareness, it soon becomes the ground for a shift away from distracting thoughts and emotions, allowing us to stay awake and responsive in the present moment.
To make this shift in our teaching, it is important for us to realize that embodiment of the principle of Tai Chi is available to us all. So that includes you. There is no magic that will come with time, just the experience that can guide a shift in view and action. An important factor is the realization that there is no separation between “the practice” and the rest of your life. The practice is your life. Your life is the practice. Formal time on the floor (and in meditation) still brings huge benefits, but the awareness available in any moment is the heart of change.
The simplicity of fundamental principles sets the scene for all this to make sense.
1. Take the time to continually, regularly experience balance and sung from dantian awareness.
2. Allow yourself to move without pushing or losing balance – no force, move within your range of motion and expand your range through relaxation and letting go.
3. Discover the circulating qi energy available in your looseness.
4. Be at ease with the space you inhabit – own it comfortably.
5. Feel comfortable contacting and connecting while maintaining ease, listening, and adherence.
These steps are actually perceptible – beyond mere concepts. Becoming aware of and familiar with the sensation of moving from your whole body, centered in the dantian, changes everything. Thinking about it (“Is that it?”) is an uncomfortable process. The practice of remembering and returning to the dantian brings ease and confidence. From that relaxed state, accepting yourself in the moment – simple present awareness – is an available result. When we come to rest in this natural state of balance, that state becomes the message transmitted across our teaching, coming from our being rather than anything that we say.
Thanks to Patrick Wooldridge for some very helpful edits!
Arica® and Arica School® are registered trademarks of Oscar Ichazo. Used with permission.