Whidbey Island Summer Retreat, 2023
The summer, 2023 Whidbey Island Retreat was held July 17—July 23 at the beautiful Whidbey Institute, located on Whidbey Island, once home to Salish speaking residents, including members of the Lower Skagit, Swinomish, Suquamish, and Snohomish tribes. Whidbey Island is about 30 miles north of Seattle, Washington, a short 20-minute ferry ride from Western Washington into Puget Sound which is part of the recently renamed Salish Sea.
Forty-seven people participated in the retreat, two less than capacity since two people unfortunately had to cancel at the last minute due to testing positive for Covid.
As I strolled through the slanted cubes of sunlight pouring in from the windows and open doorways of Thomas Berry Hall, it seemed like wherever I looked, I saw a senior teacher. “Yes, we’re spreading everywhere, like fungus!” Jonathan Stow joked with me. Sure enough, a friend and I later counted a full ten senior teachers present—what a plethora of learning was in store for us!
I couldn’t help feeling gratified to welcome so many people from so many cities experiencing a heatwave to our beautiful Pacific Northwest’s fresh air with our relatively comfortable (for now) summer climate in the mid 70’s—low 80’s. The towering and soothing Madrone, Locust, Douglass Fir, White Pine, Spruce, and multiple fruit trees felt as if they were quietly welcoming everyone, too.
The schedule was full and richly challenging as is customary at every tai chi retreat I have been to, yet we also had several hours of free time later in the day to do whatever we pleased which I and others appreciated.
To attend this retreat, students needed to know at least the entire three thirds of the form, and of course all apprentices were invited as usual. So rather than many small classes of B1, B2, B3, Push Hands 1, 2, and so on, the daily schedule provided a smaller number of larger classes to foster a sense of community and unity.
As for the classes that were offered throughout the week: Jonathan Stow and Greg Woodson taught Sword practice. Jonathan Stow and Greg Woodson, with Sherry Kent and Bob Etherington assisting on the floor, taught Push Hands for Apprentices. Sherry Kent and Angie Holland taught Intermediate Form. Jonathan Stow, Greg Woodson, and Bob Etherington taught another form class for advanced students. Vanessa Costigan and Pam Elend taught Fundamentals. Edna Brandt, Paul Campbell, Jonathan Stow, and Sherry Kent taught Time in the Art classes. Paul Campbell led daily meditation sessions, and Anna Teeples, Laurie McCauley, and David Goodell were yin assistants in form classes.
Although I have happily returned to taking and teaching in-person tai chi classes in Seattle, this was my first in-person tai chi retreat since the pandemic began. Because of this, I wanted to absorb as much as I could while also being aware of pacing, and being kind and compassionate with myself as so many of us who are growing older and hopefully wiser seem to be experiencing.
It was a pleasure to communicate in-person versus on Zoom with teachers and friends from so many different cities, states and even countries—Ireland (Vanessa) and The Netherlands (Sherry)—as well getting to know many more interesting and friendly tai chi students whom I met for the first time.
Aside from all our excellent classes, many moments felt significant throughout the week. While sitting in a rocking chair on the Farmhouse porch one crisp, sunny morning, I watched a deer raise herself up onto her hind legs in perfect balance to reach a pear, pull it from the tree, then slowly chew and swallow it. A child deer suddenly appeared from the foliage near her to eat fruit from the ground. As they calmly walked past me, the adult deer turned her head to look squarely into my eyes for many seconds followed by the child deer behind her who glanced briefly straight into my eyes. Watching them, I felt as if I were on an oasis, momentarily removed from the worries of our world.
Later at breakfast, several friends spoke excitedly about hearing the loud screeching of a Great Horned Owl at night and spotting a cougar.
The labyrinth drew me in to circumambulate within its well-trodden, yet delicate paths. On several evenings before retiring to bed, I found myself walking toward the darkened sanctuary where I did a round inside with another peer who had entered before me apparently with the same idea. On another evening while doing a round alone, surrounded by the naturally cut trunk-ringed slabs lining the walls of the sanctuary’s inner chamber, the air felt so still and soft, it felt holy.
For a moment when Christyn Johnson, chef extraordinaire, wasn’t busy cooking or refilling food for all of us, she and I agreed that since we are all now survivors of the pandemic, it is even more important than ever to cherish one another and appreciate life!
And oh my, this sentiment sure came through in the amazing food that Chris lovingly prepared for us along with chefs: Kyra Smith, Gina Horrocks, and Christina Robinson.
For three meals every day, we were blessed with such wholesome, fresh, varied, and tasty food, that no matter whom I happened to be sitting with, we were compelled to first praise the varied aspects of the food and savor the fresh flavors before talking about anything else. Every meal was truly a work of ephemeral, edible art prepared with love.
The evening programs included collaborative large ball and badminton games, a documentary movie about the importance of silence, and a documentary about Cheng Man-ch’ing with a Q&A discussion following. For the final night we enjoyed a talent show including slides of original visual art, thought-provoking and humorous stories and poetry; and singers who performed both acapella and accompanied by guitars.
Toward the end of the retreat, a participant unfortunately became ill and tested positive for Covid, so that person immediately isolated and left the retreat in the evening. Covid tests were distributed for all of us to test again for as many times as we wanted—after being tested upon entrance the first day—and no one else tested positive at the retreat.
After that, most classes were held outdoors rather than inside the studios which felt to myself and some others I spoke with like a silver lining. Outside we had the added benefit of the chi emanating from all the trees encircling us from their deeply rooted, straight trunks and buoyant branches and leaves, silently supporting us like majestic mentors. Occasionally a Barn Swallow—or was it a Black-capped Chickadee?—would flit from a high branch of one tree to another as we stepped, shifted, and rotated through our form.
With each passing day, I learned more about how I can improve my tai chi form, push hands, and sword practice, along with discovering new ways to meditate. It felt humbling and eye-opening for me to realize how many little things I had gotten in the habit of not doing quite right in the Intermediate Tai Chi Form that I had been completely unaware of. Now, I feel grateful to know what I need to work on to hopefully embody these newly realized adjustments.
The teachers combined their usual high-quality teaching tempered with plenty of good humor to go around. I especially appreciated how they paired their keen awareness and sensitivity with our individual needs and abilities.
I want to share some excerpts from Cheng Man-ch’ing’s famous The Hall of Happiness poem since they relate to much of what I personally experienced or observed going on with others in real time at the retreat, and he concludes with his soaring wishes for us all:
“…the joy I mean is…the joy of continuous growth, of helping to develop in ourselves and others the talents and abilities with which we were born…It is to revive the exhausted and to rejuvenate that which is in decline so that we are enabled to dispel sickness and suffering… Let us here correct our past mistakes and lose preoccupation with self… let us enter the land of health and ever after walk within its bounds. Let us fortify ourselves against weakness and learn to be self-reliant… Then our resolution will become the very air we breathe, the world we live in; then we will be as happy as a fish in crystal waters. This is the joy which lasts, that we can carry with us to the end of our days…” *
If Cheng Man-chi’ing were still alive and participating at the Whidbey Island Retreat, I can easily imagine him smiling at us with his eyes twinkling to witness the abundance of sincere teaching, learning, and other good-natured interactions taking place amongst us. While I’m at it, I bet senior student of Cheng Man-chi’ing and our Tai Chi Foundation founder, Patrick Watson, would be pleased with us as well.
We are so lucky to be part of such a high-quality and caring tai chi community. Now that I have finally participated in an in-person retreat again, I look forward to attending the next one.
Contributors to this blog: David Goodell and Rose Woods.
Photographs by: David Current and Sherry Kent
*Cheng Man-ch’ing and T’ai Chi: Echos in the Hall of Happiness, An Anthology of Articles from the Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Edited by Michael A. DeMarco and T.G. LaFredo, p.186.