Monday, February 11, 2008

lie a little to tell the truth

Disclaimer in advance: I don't claim to have mastered all this mysterious tai chi stuff.

However. Things have been becoming clearer to me at a steady and slightly accelerating rate over the past three months or so. It's not that I've been a better student or anything. I've been my usual sporadically-practicing self, although I try to do a little form every day. The one thing I can say has changed is that my attention is not as divided. The money situation is under control. My husband and the cat pretty much take care of themselves. My brain and psyche have settled down into new routine. So I'm more calm in general, and more attentive to what I'm doing at any given moment.

As I've said before, having new students in class, while a temporary nuisance, was a gift in disguise, because nothing makes you learn faster than teaching. As I've also said before, Sit's been singling me out for small corrections. He rarely does this at the beginning levels, because you have so much to think about that extra details just make you frustrated. And usually I can see the difference in the small corrections he gives me. Some things are just old bad habits, which, when altered, make life so much easier. The classics say, "a hairsbreadth separates heaven and earth"--and believe me, two degrees' difference in the angle of your elbow can make a difference, too. It makes a difference whether you are bending your arm at the elbow or whether you are levering up the whole arm at the shoulder. There are times to do both, but you must know which is which.

So last Saturday during class Sit was running through some of his canonical moves, particularly the one where someone bear-hugs you from behind and you raise your arms straight forward, fingertips extended like you're going to dive. And as I watching him do it, I thought, I think I know how that works. So I had the SP grab me from behind. He did it at about half-strength, which is appropriate for practice. And I raised my arms and it worked.

"Yeah!" he said, sounding pleased and surprised. I've wrestled him off before, but this was strangely effortless. When you do it right, there's no struggle. It didn't hurt me to do it, and it didn't hurt him to be pushed off. In fact, when Sit does it, you don't even realize you're being moved until it's too late.

So the SP tightened down his grip. I did it again. It worked again, but about halfway up my brain started going, "What are you doing? This can't be working." and I started to buckle, but the SP said, "Fingertips!" and I stretched them out again and his arms just floated off.

It's not just the fingertips, you see. That description is shorthand for a particular alignment of the elbows and shoulders. But if you think about the elbows and shoulders, you lock up. The SP grabbed me more strongly still, and lower down, so I couldn't get leverage with my elbows, and I stretched out my hands and slipped him right off. "Yeah!" he said, tickled, and gave me a happy shake. Then I started to laugh and gasp from the exhilaration and fright in my ears and heart.

The action so defies logic, or what we think of as logic--Such a soft movement can't possibly be effective against such a crushing grip!--that when you see it, it's a bit like seeing a burning bush, I think. Your mind doesn't know how to grasp it and you start fighting for context. Also there's the thrill of doing it right, finally! and the fear and frustration because you have no idea how you did it or how to do it again. You just try to hang onto that sensation of how it felt when you did it--and that sensation is as ephemeral as a dream and slipping away just as fast.

And you realize why the Masters describe the feeling as "stretch the tendons" and don't use muscle. You have to use muscle, obviously, your bones don't move unless you use muscle, but you have to use just enough, and in the appropriate, subtle places, to generate movement without creating tension in the big muscles on the outside of your limbs. If I had tightened up my biceps, it wouldn't have worked. Tension is for stopping. It creates a wedge against your opponent that he can brace against.

I figured out a few weeks ago that this chi or qi we're always talking about wants to flow through you. All you have to do is arrange your limbs in such a way as to allow the maximum flow, which is why so little muscle tension is required. How much energy does it take to lift your own arm, anyway? Qi is like electricity, you want to remove all the resistance for the best power, and in the human body, tension is the resistance. So when the SP bear-hugs me and I raise my arms, I am not lifting against him. I am straightening my arms, turning my elbows slightly down and in so my shoulders roll forward. This makes my back round and makes me hard to hang onto. The SP's grip depends upon him being able to keep his arms close to his body, but when I round out my back and arms, I'm creating a circle, ergo creating a situation which, for him, is like trying to carry a moderately heavy but very large box. It's too far away from his body and therefore difficult to keep hold of.

It sounds simple, and it is. But it is also extremely complex. It's a combination of timing, and stretching, and flexing, and always less and in different places than you expect. And then there's the mental aspect of it--it's amazing how much detachment you have to have from the person that's gripping you. Or put another way, you have to think of them as part of you. If I move my arms, he must move with me because he is part of me.

All of this has been said to me before. All of it sounds sensible enough on its own, but contradictory when you put it together, and impossible when you try to do it. And I realize why all the old Masters speak in such frustratingly vague aphorisms--because metaphor is the only convention we can use to describe the indescribable. What is language, anyway, but an attempt to show someone else what is inside our own heads? Given that everyone's perspective is a wee bit different, something is bound to get lost in the translation. And when you are trying to describe something that not everyone has experienced, language becomes even less reliable.

I'm reminded strongly of where I was after I finished that first Quinn Taylor story, "Galatea." I looked at that with the same sense of exhilaration and dread. "Wow. I really did it. Did I really do that? I think I did. How did I do that? And how do I make it happen again?" And of course Quinn's asking herself the same questions in the story.

I dunno. I've written more stories since then. Most of them worked. The one that didn't, I can fix... I think. But I'll be damned if I can describe how the ones that worked, did.

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