July 23, 2005

Plano Morning

The first thing I saw through the motel window this morning was a tall, muscular black man doing the Yang style tai chi form in the parking lot. An intermediate student, apparently: he knows the moves but his pace isn’t smooth. An hour later, the lot is dotted with a few more practitioners, one of them, a middle-aged Chinese man, doing Chen style with fluidity and intensity, as if a slight turn of his palm could knock you down – which it probably could. And the Yang style black man is still there practicing: he’ll get to the next level before I do.

I’ve traveled to this northern suburb of Dallas, with its overwhelmingly aggressive highway-front of chain motels and franchise restaurants, for a Chinese martial arts tournament – tai chi, kung fu, wu shu, chi sau, shuai chiao, ba gua, wing chun, xing yi, choy lay fut, and who knows what else – because my teacher requires it, not because I want to be here. The whole idea of competition is antithetical to tai chi, as book after book tells you, for the skills of forcefulness and flashiness required to win a competition are precisely those tai chi seeks to supplant with deceptive softness and spontaneous cunning.

But I’m getting something out of the experience by taking lots of workshops – in fact I had three scheduled at the same time yesterday and had to reshuffle. All three I took were from masters who have been teaching in this country for decades after arriving here from China. In different ways, in different words (and sometimes in the same words) they emphasized the same point, which cannot be emphasized too often:


Don’t press. The force you think you are exerting is not really force but tension. Speed and acceleration are far more important than mass. Don’t go in with a plan; just follow what’s happening and respond before it happens. Leave your mind empty and your motions free and the opponent can’t follow you. Be in motion continuously. Defend on the weak side, not the strong side: start from Yin and turn it into Yang. Let the opponent overextend: take him where he already wants to go.

Time and again in these workshops, we saw how a soft movement is more effective than a hard movement in countering an attack. It takes a lifetime of patience to develop this skill, but once developed, it is almost magical. And perhaps to have the patience to get there is to have the skill itself.

Not a slack, enervated relaxation but an alert, energetic relaxation, a freedom from tension. The Chinese word is song, which is not adequately translated by any one English word.

I’m wondering how to apply it to life, which is of course the real point of all this. We all know of times when we’ve pressed too hard, meeting a force with too much force of our own and ending in a painful stalemate. Over the decades, in marriage especially, I’ve learned not to confront so much, not to insist on being right or having the last word.

Most men, most American men, in various aspects of their lives need to learn not to tense up so much, not to care about putting up a show of force, not to flood with anger, not to put their own tension into their own paths.

At the same time – having all the typical problems plus the opposite, less typical ones too – I’ve sometimes been told I’ve been too passive, too “go with the flow,” too yin. (Many years ago, long before I studied Chinese things, a therapist summed up my problem as “too yin. You need more yang.”)

The correct approach, of course, is balance. That’s really what tai chi is all about. It’s not a question of favoring yin over yang, although that is done strategically at certain points. It’s a matter of observing the constant, continuous flow of yin into yang and yang into yin. Neither of them can ever remain static, and each includes the other. (Which is why in the tai chi, also known as the “ying-yang diagram,” the black half contains a white dot and the white half a black dot.) You follow the changes and keep your balance, and you remain ready to turn each into the other.

In writing for example. What am I to write this morning? Well, I just looked out the window and found it. What words can I use to describe it best? No pressing for fancy words. As Kerouac said in “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose” (a quotation from which is always at the top of this page), “dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better.”

There are different guys out on the parking lot now, practicing. I’d better do something too.