A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
Invest in Loss
by Christopher Dow
The wisdom of the Tai Chi Classics leaves Tai Chi practitioners with a number of important ideas, principles, and practical advice. Among those is “Invest in loss.” At first glance, the phrase itself might seem to be an oxymoron. After all, “investment” should accrue rather than diminish—though obviously not all investments pan out. But why would anybody deliberately put effort into losing? As usual, Tai Chi asks you to look beneath the surface.
The idea of investment is pretty straightforward. You put in capital—time, effort, money, and so forth—with the expectation of a reward over time. At its most basic in Tai Chi, investing in loss can indicate the expenditure of time and effort to learn the form and to continue to practice it. The loss is that half-hour to hour a day that you spend doing Tai Chi instead of something else. It’s the loss of comfort reflected in the sore muscles and achy joints that frequently come with long-term physical practices. And it’s understanding that the movements you’ve practiced diligently are never quite right and constantly have to be redone, adjusted, or realized in a different way.
In that context, I’m reminded of an anecdote about a great Tai Chi master. When asked if he’d ever done a perfect set of Tai Chi, he replied, “I thought I did last week, but this week, I did one even better.” Despite the wryness of his reply, the meaning is clear: Even with his superior skill at Tai Chi, had he not continued to invest time and energy in his art—had he not continued to lose—he would not have continued to progress.
These sorts of investments are easy to see as a tangible quantities, and the results also are tangible: smoother, more flowing movements that are centered and grounded, producing a greater sense of physical capability and well-being. But other benefits that follow, while not exactly tangible, also are manifest. Through investment in daily practice, one experiences many sorts of loss that are really gains: loss of tension, loss of instability, and loss of improper body alignments.
Through investment in the meditational aspect of Tai Chi, one begins to divest oneself of erroneous, wayward, and careless thought. In a sense, Tai Chi asks you to “lose your mind,” for the ultimate loss is loss (or at least suppression) of ego, or the mental desire to always win or look good in the eyes of our fellow humans. Through this investment of calming the mind, we lose the need to observe ourselves from some theoretical outside perspective—a perspective that is filled with often erroneous suppositions of how others see us and what they think of us—and begin to observe ourselves from within.
In Movements of Magic, Bob Klein writes: “Letting go is a basic, if not the basic principle of T’ai-chi-Ch’uan.” (1) In truth, investing in ego loss is one of the principal challenges of push hands practice, and it highlights another definition of “invest,” which also means to give power or authority to, as in an investiture ceremony. In this meaning, you authorize, empower, and ordain someone or something to carry on with a given duty or procedure.
In push hands, you invest an opponent with the opportunity to invade your space and do something to you that most of us hate: push you around at close quarters. In other words, the loss is in allowing yourself to be pushed—to “lose” the fight. Fighting the pressure that your opponent puts on you is, itself, resistance to loss. Instead, one must learn that if resistance is met in one direction, then the accurate response is to lose (sink and turn) and then move in a different direction, seeking an emptiness in which there is no resistance. And that emptiness also is loss, but in this case, your investment of non-resistance results in your opponent’s loss.
Moreover, investing in loss is understanding that your efforts will not produce immediate results, either in practice of the form or in push hands. This is an important thing to keep in mind in our age of instant gratification. A Tai Chi buddy related a conversation he had with a young man who sincerely thought he was really good at kung fu because he could manipulate his game controller expertly during martial arts video games. Instant gratification and fanciful desires rarely produce genuine results. Instead, the mobility, energy, and skills imparted by the Tai Chi form accrue steadily over time in an almost imperceptible fashion, only revealing themselves after long periods of seemingly futile effort. And these long periods of apparent pointless work can definitely make one question the investment in one’s practice, making it seem like wasted effort—a loss of the capital of time and effort.
“Invest in loss” is similar to a number of quotes by various people on the dichotomy of failure and success and how the latter follows only from the former. You might have your favorite; I’m choosing the following:
“Failure is the key to success; each mistake teaches us something.”
Founder of Aikido (2)
“We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.”
Scottish author (3)
“Nothing fails like success because we don’t learn from it. We learn only from failure.”
Economist and systems scientist (4)
The idea is that one does not become expert at anything in an instant or without patient effort. One must repeatedly do things wrong before being able to funnel matters into a channel that is more correct. Growth results only from failure to move or behave properly and then trying again and again in different ways until something like success is approached. These failures are investments in loss that lead one farther along one’s path.
Investing in loss—letting go—can serve as a rule for many aspects of life, such as marriage, work, play, and human interactions in the public sphere. Investing in loss can help eliminate destructive habits, erroneous thought, ungrounded expectations, or any of the other sundry elements of life that hold us back or otherwise prevent us from moving forward. It can do this simply by telling us that we can let go of the anchors that retard our progress or that we can navigate around blockages the impede us rather than futilely butting up against them.
Ultimately, though, no matter how diligently and determinedly we practice or how proficient we become, we will, in an instant, lose it all as we step through the door of death. We’ve all heard the adage about death and wealth that goes: You can’t take it with you. But perhaps that statement isn’t fully accurate. Certainly you can’t take items with you, but if there is something beyond life and you can take some qualities with you, those would be aspects of personal development, and personal development is fostered by investing in loss.
As in Tai Chi, investments in the doing and in striving for accuracy and meaning in life are what are important, not achievements, per se, which will always be lost in the end. Perhaps the doing is enough.
1 Klein, Bob, Movements of Magic: The Spirit of T’ai-chi-Ch’uan (Newcastle Publishing Co., 1984), p. 16.
3 Dangerously Irrelevant, http://dangerouslyirrelevant.org/2008/07/we-learn-from-f.html.
4 Dangerously Irrelevant, http://dangerouslyirrelevant.org/2008/07/we-learn-from-f.html.