|Master Kai Ying Tung, ShanShui-TaiChi, 2012|
When I started, Emilio Gonzalez was usually the leader of two evening practice sessions during the week, and exuberant Saturday morning sessions in the ballroom at 50 Oak Street, San Francisco. Other senior students taught as well and there were often twenty of us, working at different levels. Master Tung did not encourage competition, telling us that the person who began tai chi first would always be ahead of the one who had begun practice later.
At the beginning I strove to practice every day, often going to the arboretum in San Francisco as soon as I woke to do the sets that I had so far learned. I was thrilled with the poetic names for the movements, from “white crane spreads its wings” to “two birds parting” and “cloud hands.” Many of the movements were counter-intuitive, such as placing your weight on one leg and turning on that weighted foot; keeping a “channel” between your feet for stability; and the roundedness of every movement, during which one’s whole body is “full,” pushing out in every direction.
Learning took a long time. Often as you worked to gain mastery of one thing, you lost the previous thing! Only continued practice allowed you to gather up all the pieces into one fluid set. For myself in particular, tai chi helped with emotional problems, such as the fact that I “over-identified” with others. In the grid in which we stood to do tai chi, each person was related to his own source. “Energy comes up from the ground, gets directed by the waist and expressed in the hands,” we were told.
I found that the intense physical efforts we put out, often finding ourselves wringing wet at the end of class, grounded me in my tumultuous emotional life. The early years of practicing tai chi was a time of great opening for me, in which I understood myself better and achieved at least some mastery over my intensity. Practice became the discipline which allowed me to keep to the aspirations I had set for myself.
By the time I began tai chi practice, I already felt that Taoism was the religion closest to the way I saw the world, particularly in the sense that spirit and matter are so closely intertwined as to be inseparable. John Blofeld’s charming writing, particularly in Taoism: The Road to Immortality , was my guide. I also read Deng Ming Dao’s romantic The Wandering Taoist , which, though discredited as to its authenticity, described a Taoist education. The meditation method I’ve used ever since, based on the microcosmic orbit, I learned mostly from this book.
Tai chi itself cannot be learned from books, however. Only with reputable teachers in long, earnest practice does one study tai chi. Over the years, in the dynamic Kai Ying Tung Academy, I learned many sets, both fast and slow, including weapon sets and two-person sets. After much intense practice, my body was light, flexible and anxious for more! Though we all knew the health benefits of full-body circulation, the way the sets stimulate the energy or “chi” which flows through the meridians in the body, there was no way to compare it to what one would be like without it!
Despite what I gained, I learned that you must give yourself to the practice. People who tried to make it into something they thought it should be did not succeed. It is, in a way, a method of learning not to have intention, to experience “choiceless awareness.” I also found it impossible to write about tai chi! Or to watch it if one is not a student! The fact that tai chi is a primary experience is one of its gifts.
Though my practice is no longer as avid as it once was, it is still sustaining. Involved in the lives and experiences of many fine students and teachers, I have counted myself lucky to be part of a tai chi community which points the way both in practice and in life. It is impossible to come to the end of practice. There is always more.