Thursday, October 16, 2008

enlightenment, motivation

Sit tried a new teaching method with us t'other night.

He drew a little chart to illustrate the 3 parts of tai chi power: hard power, soft power, and so-called internal power. This concept is taken directly from his most recent article in Tai Chi Magazine, which talks about how to build Nei gong. He's been trying to get the guys to read it. I'm not sure if any of them have.

He tried to explain that having good body mechanics leads to relaxation which leads to internal power, and all three feed back to increase each other. But Internal Power is ultimately the heart of tai chi, and when you have it, it trumps the other two, because it takes so very little to get the job done.

"It's like Scotch," he said. He made a half-inch space with his thumb and forefinger. "You put that much in a glass, right? Because it so concentrated." He paused for a moment. "You guys all drinking Coca-Cola... supersize!"

To give us a spectrum of ability, Sit ranked his favorite grand master at the maximum of "4" in all three power categories. He put himself at about 2.5 (which is pretty daunting, considering how much better he is than all of us) and, picking on me as an example, ranked me at "1" in each category. He said that small people usually catch onto the concept of softness and internal power faster than big people, because smaller people don't have the muscle to fall back on. Because of that, he said, I have a little more internal power than the guys, but not enough to overcome their sheer muscle. (A fact of which I was already aware!)

All of this was very enlightening to me. I had read his article several times before--had actually written the first draft of it for him, but that was almost two years ago and I knew at the time that I wasn't getting all the meaning out of it--I was just transcribing his words. My understanding has increased a lot since then. As the SP put it, I've started to "believe" in the internal power. I feel it sometimes, but I can't hang onto it, figuratively speaking. It's an ephemeral thing, like trying to fall asleep--if you push, it retreats. I was glad to see my assessment of my own abilities confirmed. Sit's not the type to hand out empty praise, so I could see this as both an affirmation and a challenge--this is where you are, this is where you want to be.

During practice, Sit was trying to get me to relax into a leg wrap-and-throw move. I could do it mechanically well enough, but I wasn't making good contact--not enough soft energy. He demonstrated on me: first he wrapped the leg, then made contact with his arm and shoulder. A good, solid, three-point connection. "This what you do."

Then he relaxed his calf and thigh. His leg became like a towel wrapped around mine. His arm molded against mine from shoulder to wrist, seeming to disregard the presence of bones and joints. He sank his waist, hip, and ribs against the side of my body, so it felt like I was pressed into a foam mattress. I was engulfed in purposeful contact. It was weird, a total invasion of personal space, which is the whole point of the exercise and probably why most of us are reluctant to do it. He melded us into a single organism. When he moved, I had no choice but to move with him.

I've had him throw me many times, but never had him break down the move so slowly and methodically. It was a tremendous gift. It was kind of awe-inspiring, too, to realize how much awareness and control he has over his body, that he can not only do the right thing, but deliberately do the wrong thing and then systematically adjust it.

"You learn to do that," he said, "you get a '2' in internal power, on that chart, you know?" He pursed his lips for a moment. "That make you better than ninety percent of the so-called tai chi masters around here."

Now that's the way to motivate somebody. I know better by now than to try to build internal power--it's more of a side effect of good body structure, relaxation, and clear mind. But those three things I can work on, and will. I'm really quite excited.


Lisa said...

I always love to read your Kung Fu posts.

I don't quite know how the two relate, but your post left me thinking of how in my Yoga practice if I'm trying and trying and trying to get a posture just right it won't happen. I might technically get close, but it's not until I relax and stop thinking that my muscles follow the correct path. Whatever energy I'm using in that moment is what's primarily holding me up, not my muscles.

Great post.

Holly said...

Thank you!

draxes said...

Have you read Lao Tzu yet? How about Wei Wu Wei?
You might find them helpful in your studies.
It's just a thought.
Had to look you up again just to check in, and see how you were doing.

Holly said...

It's hard for me to answer a question like "have you read this" without sounding snotty... but my honest answer is, I haven't felt a need. If Sit tells me to read something, I do. Otherwise I feel I get what I need from him, at my level.

I've read a translation of the Tai Chi Classics, and I've read Master Yang Yang's book, The Art of Nurturing, the Science of Power, which is an excellent, pragmatic overview of tai chi. We subscribe to T'ai Ch'i Magazine, which I usually skim through because Sit likes to talk about it around the kitchen table.

Generally, though, I feel that reading books about tai chi is the same as reading books about writing--If you're busy reading, you ain't busy doing it. The martial artists I've met who can rattle off chapter and verse of who-founded-what-when, tend to have knowledge but no ability.

Maybe when I'm a little higher level and develop my own understanding, I will feel curious about what others have written. I don't think a low-level student is going to get much out of the words of the masters.

See also: Dramatic Irony

draxes said...

I apologize for the misunderstanding. They do not write about Tai Chi exactly. They write about philosophy and understanding.

Holly said...

Well, you see, the term "Wei wu Wei" is a phrase that Sit uses a lot, because there's an aspect of tai chi skill that involves "non-doing," and I wondered why you had used it here as if it were someone's name, so I looked it up, and I deduced you were talking about the Irishman who wrote under that pseudonym.

And I figured you had either read the work of Terence Gray and felt it had some deep meaning for you that you wanted to share with others, or you had a passing knowledge of his work, saw the word "enlightenment" in what I was discussing here, and used the reference for an opening segue.

But since Buddhism and tai chi and Enlightenment tend to get all lumped into the same category, in my view, a book about Enlightenment could legitimately be considered a book about tai chi, or vice versa. I often find that students of martial arts are also into Zen. So I was giving you the benefit of the doubt that you were trying to stick to the topic at hand.

For the record, I am not a Buddhist. I am not actively seeking enlightenment except as it might pertain to my tai chi studies, and I really have very little patience with folks who claim to be seeking Enlightenment. Those who speak, do not know, y'know?

But here you have unknowingly embodied two of my worst pet peeves--people who give unsolicited advice, and Americans who go around name-dropping eastern philosophies. It's not your fault. I forgive you. Practicing the compassion, doncha know.