A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
Tai Chi that Isn't Tai Chi but Is Tai Chi
by Christopher Dow
Tai chi concepts and literature are filled with dichotomy. We often see statements like: “If there is up, there is down,” or “Defense and attack are simultaneous.” But dichotomy in tai chi should come as no surprise. The art is based on yin/yang, and it’s name is derived from Taoist/Buddhist principles and from the tai chi symbol—the taijitu—which is a profound and universally recognized representation of all dichotomies.
The title of this essay might seem to indicate that my subject is dichotomies, and perhaps it is in the final reckoning. But after a time, as implied by the second statement above, such dichotomies tend to coalesce into unified wholes that contain both the yin and yang in different mixtures. So, drawing a particular yin/yang analogy isn’t my purpose here. Instead, I want to talk about the whole of the mutual interaction between tai chi and living in the phenomenal world.
When I first came to tai chi, I was looking for a martial art that would exercise my body and impart some measure of self-defense ability. Above all, I wanted it to be interesting enough to absorb me for some time. Little did I realize that “some time” meant “a lifetime.” Nor did I realize just how deeply my tai chi practice would affect my interactions with the phenomenal world.
As the movements and energies of tai chi have become more and more integrated into my body, I find myself moving through life in a tai chi way, not only physically but intellectually and emotionally. I can see how practice of tai chi and adherence to its principles smoothes one’s experiences and how lack of adherence enables or creates turmoil. Now, nearly four decades later, I undertand that tai chi has much to impart beyond acquiring a more or less profound kinetic sense and developing and manipulating internal energy—and by extension, the developing the ability to manipulate the kinetic senses and energies of others.
But the ways that tai chi connects the tai chi player with the world is only half of the story. The other half is how the world constantly connects back, demonstrating tai chi principles in ways ranging from subtle to obvious. The longer I’ve practiced, the more it seems that reality, itself, constantly manifests the principles of the art and delivers tai chi lessons at every turn. We just have to become aware of those lessons. And the interesting thing is that those lessons often aren’t directly connected to the art—hence the title of this series.
Starting with the next posting, “Tai Chi that Isn’t Tai Chi that Is Tai Chi” will feature short pieces on some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years from incidents and other means and sources that weren’t specifically tai chi-related but that perfectly exhibit or demonstrate some element of the art. I have to admit here, that I basically stole the idea for the title from the subtitle of William Ting’s Essential Concepts of Tai Chi: It is – It is Not – IT IS. But as I pointed out in my review of that excellent book, it’s pretty much what Bruce Lee said about the concept of the punch.
I took up tai chi in my late twenties, so I’d had ample opportunity before that to experience life BTC (Before Tai Chi), and in retrospect some of what I experienced seem to me now to have been specific lessons to prepare me for learning the art I came to love. And since then, I have seen or experienced many similar lessons. They’ve helped me delve more deeply into tai chi, and I hope they do something similar for you and that you’ll come back.