MAY 2015 NEWSLETTER – FRUSTRATION

Yes, it is still spring, and as you can see, the magnificent Bluebells are out, so if you have not yet been to see them please hurry up as they soon will be gone. The fields are ripe with rapeseed that look like sunshine, even on a cloudy day, so we have no reason to complain. Well, I’m sure that if we want to complain we can find reasons, still it’s a little more difficult to complain when nature around us is that beautiful.

As you might remember from the previous newsletter, one of the emotions of an unbalanced liver is frustration – as one of the manifestations of unexpressed anger.

Today I want to talk about FRUSTRATION, and in particular what I call  ‘Tai Chi related frustration’; the frustration of ‘I cannot remember the form’, ‘I don’t understand the movements’, or ‘I just don’t get it’. You will be surprised how relevant this emotion and the discussion of what to do about it is to all fields in life rather than to Tai Chi practice only.

I often think that one of the main challenges in teaching/practicing Tai Chi in the western world is related to this issue. We in the western world are so used to learning with a particular goal in mind; we start by trying to remember; ‘get it into our head’, then we are tested on the material, and upon accomplishment of our course, we receive a certificate, or even better, a degree. This process of learning has a clear beginning and an even clearer end to it, at which point many people will say Good Riddance. Learning is, therefore, done mainly by working hard, sometimes without much joy or excitement, and very often the main organ involved in the learning process is the brain, well, with a bit of help from the fingers pressing on the keyboard.

Tai Chi, as a form of art that is rooted in Taoist philosophy, is looking at the learning process as well as at the expected outcomes in very much the opposite way to the described above. The learning is a circular path rather than a linear one, having no beginning and no end, like Tao itself, and the idea of achievement has not much to do with it.

“ It can’t be grasped  by the imagination.

It has no beginning and no end.

This is the essence of Tao.”

As disappointing as this may be to you, in Tai Chi there are no levels, exams or titles to put before or after our name, nor any belts of different colours to put on our waist (I am afraid that the belts are a Japanese rather than Chinese addition).  This means that we have no-where to rush to, since when we ‘get there’, wherever ‘there’ may be, ‘there’ will turn into ‘here’ and we will find ourselves trying to get somewhere else. So knowing that there is no ‘there’ to get to is,in fact, a liberating knowledge as it saves us a lot of time, energy, stress and frustration. Tai Chi tells us: Don’t try to get anywhere, just be in the HERE AND NOW. This is really very simple, all we need to DO is to BE; it means that we are already being THE BEST TAICHIST we can be at any given moment as long as we experience the here and now.

What a relief! Please stop for a moment and pat yourself on the shoulder as you are a Tai Chi master in your own right. And then forget about it.

In the process of learning Tai Chi, the more body parts are involved in the learning, the better it is. In fact, it would be wonderful if we can, for once, eliminate the brain from taking over, and instead use the whole body to do the learning. Our body has an amazing capacity to recognise patterns of movement and to remember them (yes, the body has its own memory too). Especially that all movements contained within Tai Chi go with our natural abilities and do not try to push our physical boundaries. We use many repetitions and go over the same movements as if they were physical mantras. No one expects us to know the material after one, two or twenty lessons. This has to do with the idea that the process of learning is not limited to the brain alone but comprises the three aspects of the human being; Body-Mind-Spirit. A lot of the learning is done mainly by the body, and the brain has in fact very little to do with it. The problem starts when the thinking mind insists on getting involved and seeks to control the situation. We then get a mixture of feelings that all get in the way of our learning; frustration, self-criticism or judgment of others, the highs and lows of  “I think I finally got it right!” (How great am I) followed by “ Why don’t I ever get it right?” (No one is as bad as I am at this).

In my mind, the main ‘secret’ to getting over this frustration that so many of us experience, is in understanding something very fundamental to the philosophy of Tai Chi:

IT IS NOT ABOUT REMEMBERING ANYTHING!

If it’s about anything at all, it is about FEELING THE MOVEMENT, which allows us to be aware of THE ENERGY.

In other words, learning Tai Chi is learning to be aware of the energy around us and so respond to it.

This is a challenging concept for people who are used to the scientific way of the western world which is all about examination and proof

What is this energy? Am I supposed to feel anything? And what if I don’t? We can’t see it, smell or hear it, and we definitely cannot touch it… or can we?!

The idea of feeling the energy is not unique to Tai Chi. It is something that all of the Chinese Five Exellences share; Calligraphy, Painting, Poetry, Martial Arts and Medicine. In all these arts we can find the idea of feeling the energy and moving with it as a main part that leads towards, conducts and produces the final ‘product’. When an acupuncturist puts the needle in his patient’s body he is required not to count merely on the knowledge of the point, not to look at what he’s doing, but to feel the needle moving into the body. A work of art or calligraphy is considered good when one can recognise the feeling of connection between the brush, the artist and his art.

In this context, there is a lovely Chinese expression that translates as “The Ink Runs Deep”. It means that someone has a deep and thorough feeling and connection to something, and therefore a deep understanding of it. It is based on a Chinese story about a highly acclaimed calligrapher that lived thousands of years ago. In those days, they used to write on a tree or a piece of wood, and then ask a wood carver to shape it so it could be carried around. Usually the ink stayed on the surface of the wood. This calligrapher, when writing, barely touched the tree with the tip of his brush. When the wood carver arrived to do his bit of the work, he found to his surprise that the ink penetrated all the way into the centre of the tree. He then said “The Ink Runs Deep’, meaning – despite the fact that the calligrapher’s work looked very light and effortless, and because of his feeling of the wood and his connection to it, the ink itself continued this connection and absorbed into the wood, until artist, ink and wood were one.

And so it is with Tai Chi. None of it is in the mind, yet, it is all in the mind – it is in the mind’s power to support our learning process or to be in its way, to enhance our movement or to hinder it. If only we can allow our mind to stop criticizing, expecting and getting disappointed – which are all terms that are of no consequence to Tai Chi itself – we will be free to ‘listen’ to the energy and follow it. Relaxation will then happen by itself, the movement will feel and look graceful and flowing, and the unity between us, our Tai Chi and the world around us, will be present.

You can’t see it, because it has no form.

You can’t hear it, because it makes no noise.

You can’t touch it, because it has no substance.

It cannot be known in these ways,

Because it is the all-embracing Whole.

It is not high and light,

or low and dark.

Indefinable yet continually present.

It is nothing at all.

It is the formless form.

The imageless image.

It can’t be grasped by the imagination.

It has no beginning and no end.

This is the essence of Tao.

Stay in harmony with this ancient presence,

And you will know the fullness of each present moment.

Tao Te Ching verse 14

And if this is all too complicated for us, we will still have the Bluebells and the sunny fields.

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