March 12, 2005

Are Amazing Things Happening?

I just got back from the first day of an intensive two–day workshop in aspects of tai chi chuan*, given by Christophe Clarke, a 46–year old Jamaican–born American who lives and teaches in Colorado. He’s been practicing kung fu since he was 7 and tai chi since he was 15, and he can do amazing things like break a stack of seven cinderblocks with a barely visible motion of one hand. I’ve been practicing tai chi since I was 47, and I hope to gain physical benefits such as balance, coordination, flexibility, and overall wellbeing, and mental benefits such as serenity, alertness, and poise.

Today’s focus was on the spiritual and perhaps even telepathic aspects of tai chi, and since I’m a skeptic by nature, some parts of it worked better for me than other parts. Great stretching, for starters. And the discovery that by holding a motionless, relaxed, spine–straightening posture for a long time, one will generate a physiological and mental response that includes some or all of the following: profuse sweating, intense pain in the thighs, uncontrollable shaking or swaying, and overwhelming emotions to the point of weeping or wanting to weep. After such an exercise, ten minutes to an hour long, one may also feel an overwhelming sense of release of stress that some have called “divine.”

Best of all, for me, was the exercise in trusting others to catch one’s fall. I don’t think of myself as a trusting person, and whenever I’d heard or read about that kind of exercise in the past I’d flinched from it mentally, assuming I could never do it. Today, because I was in a class of people I know and like--and I’m regarded as something of a leader there--I volunteered to be the first to demonstrate this skill, and I did wonderfully. That alone would have been worth the price of the workshop.

Then there were the mystical parts. Christophe claims that he can push people from a distance, without physically touching them. He demonstrated it with a child who is a moderately advanced kung fu student. Did it work? Or was it the context, and her knowledge of what was supposed to happen, and normal suggestibility, that pushed her backward? I don’t know. But Christophe says he has done it with adults in controlled situations and freaked those adults out.

Then we were supposed to generate chi--the Chinese term that means energy or life force and is ancestral to George Lucas’ “The Force”--between our palms and keep the heat flowing there while we separated our palms to wider distances, and work this palm chi upon a partner who was standing across the room. Did that work? No, but maybe it’s because I haven’t been practicing it for 30 years. Christophe claims that prehistoric people developed advanced skills along these lines, which we have largely forgotten.

Then we were supposed to project thoughts of a blinding color, from among five possible colors, at our partner and see if our partner could guess the color. Did it work? Not for me. In a group of ten pairs, it worked for five pairs in the first round, which seems statistically significant to me. But in the second round only two pairs transmitted their colors correctly, which is exactly what probability would have predicted.

I try to be open–minded in all things, but I always have to overcome the doubting stance bred into me by generations of my forebears. The upshot is that during a workshop like this, which is intended to stretch our minds as well as our bodies, I worry about whether I’m getting it or not. Christophe showed us how to do our slow tai chi movements so that the twisting of our torso muscles massaged our internal organs. Done consistently over decades, this is supposed to conduce to longevity. All around me, students were exclaiming that they felt the muscle contractions in precisely the spots Christophe designated. (Some of them were the ones who were shaking most in the long motionless posture.) Meanwhile I was wondering, “Do I feel it or not? Am I doing it right?” And I was a more advanced student, supposedly, than they were.

We live in a culture of exclamation, it seems to me, and I’m not the exclamatory type--or maybe I would like to be, and was trained out of it a long time ago. As a reader and writer of realistic fiction I delight in the ordinary, the everyday--I do find wonder there. But I’m not the type of person who effuses over every little thing, who gives gold stars to myself or others for every little effort. When I hear someone talking about an acquaintance who is an “amazing” cook or an “extremely brilliant” scholar--you know the way people talk nowadays--I assume they’re referring to a pretty decent cook and a competent scholar. So when I twist my torso in a prescribed way, I don’t automatically agree that it’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever felt just because there’s someone at the front of the room who wants me to say it and a bunch of other people around me who are complying in saying it.

I often think I’m missing something because of this.

Tomorrow’s workshop is more practical: it’s on push hands, the gentle tai chi form of sparring. In push hands you and a partner face each other wrist to wrist and try to throw each other off balance without using excessive effort. (Ideally it should be effortless.) This exemplifies and develops the tai chi principle of “four ounces of effort defeats a thousand pounds of strength.” It doesn’t look like it could do you any good in a fight--it looks like a slow dance, halfway between fighting and making love--but in my opinion it’s more effective than sparring in the “hard” martial arts (karate, tae kwan do, kung fu, etc.) for developing a sense of how to respond to an opponent, how to remain calm and rooted in the face of an attack, how to move spontaneously within a stable framework, and how to turn an attack against itself. “Wait till your opponent starts to move, and then anticipate it,” is the paradoxical but surprisingly accurate push hands slogan.

Christophe is a longtime national heavyweight push hands champion and today he promised me some great tips. I’ll tell you more tomorrow.

* Chuan means “fist” in Chinese. When you see the phrase tai chi chuan, it means that tai chi is being taught as a martial art, not just a New Age movement exercise. Of all the martial arts, it’s considered the most difficult and time–consuming to learn to use for practical self–defense. Few students can rely on it for that purpose. But as practiced by masters, it trumps all other martial arts for fighting effectiveness.