Layers Upon Layers

I have been practicing Tai Chi for 26+ years. During that time, I had a Sifu (a “Father-Teacher”) for about five years, and I didn’t even have that until I’d been practicing for about 4 years. My first period of study was a 1,000 day vow I took to do Tai Chi every day. During that time I got up to 5 hours of practice a day, with most averaging around 2, or 3. Most of my learning and exploration has come by way of my own practice. When I first met my Sifu, he was quite surprised that I had no previous instruction other than from books. He refused to be my “teacher”, saying instead that he wanted to practice with me and that we had things to learn from each other. I don’t say this to impress, but to highlight how my particular path has been laid out.

The deepening of my understanding of Tai Chi comes in fits and spurts. I’ll be going through the form, no different than any other day, and something will shift. It might be my stance suddenly dropping a couple of inches, or my pelvis flattening, or an energetic flow in part of my body that did not previously seem to have one (at least to my conscious awareness anyways.) These shifts are not apparent from the outside, generally. Only someone who had been working with me for some time, and who had a very keen eye, might pick up the difference. Mostly it’s just me who notes these shifts. I think that is as it should be.

The weakness of this approach is that I would probably be farther along if I had worked with a teacher for more than a quarter of the time I’ve studied Tai Chi. The strength of this method is that I can, at this point, say that my Tai Chi is “my” Tai Chi. There is something very special, and precious in that.

I’ve never nailed myself down to one path in life. I study many, and take what is useful from each. I make a decent Buddhism practitioner, a horrible Hinduism student, a barely passable Christian mystic, an okay Gnostic, an above average Discordian (a contradiction in terms of epic proportion), a somewhat skilled Philosopher, and so on. The one path I feel a good amount of comfort, and confidence with is Taoism. The reasons are many fold, but the pertinent one here is that Tai Chi, if anything, is a physical expression of Taoist thought. To a large extent, to study Tai Chi is to study the Tao. From that perspective, I have been studying Taoism for two and a half decades (actually more like three and a half since I studied Taoist thought before I took up Tai Chi.) Because my Tai Chi is “my” Tai Chi, I am afforded the opportunity to study Tai Chi, and thus the Tao, from “inside.”

This is something missing in my culture. By my culture, I mean the Western modern world of the 80’s and 90’s, in California. I don’t want to assume anything for other people. However, in my culture, a certain sense of positive ownership was missing. Other than vague notions of “finding my voice” given by early English teachers who saw some talent in writing for me, there was a basic sense installed that I should find some comfortable, well-worn path, and pursue that for life. Be a Doctor, or a Lawyer, or a Mechanic, or something. Luckily for me (mostly) I have never been much of a joiner. Tai Chi is the first place where I found great encouragement to make something my own, to find my own expression of self. That lead me to a lot of “independent study” in my life, and my wandering career path has definitely born witness to this proclivity.

I am slowly coming to learn, and be grateful for, how much Tai Chi has held open a welcoming space for me to explore who I am in the world. Others use different modalities. For some it is cooking, for some crafting, for some art, for some scholarship, for some religion, etc. Regardless, it seems to me that being human, and understanding what that means, requires some path to follow, develop, and make your own. Whatever that path may be, everyone who I have ever met who has found theirs has been far better for it.

photo credit

No Big Deal


I’ve been trying a new modality for eating lately. The 5:2 diet, which I posted about previously. Basically, you do a soft fast (take in about 1/4 of your normal caloric intake) on two non-consecutive days each week. That’s it. The rest of the time all bets are off.

I got attracted to trying this out because of my fascination with habits and conditioning. I know I have lot of them around food and eating. It’s been a life-long battle (well, since I was 21 when I decided to do something about my poor relationship with food), and I know I still have a lot of digging to do there. This protocol seemed like a great way to bring those habits and conditioning into the light of conscious awareness.

I am in the midst of my third week, and Sunday was a fast day. I happen to love sushi. There is a corner “health” food store that stocks little trays of sushi made daily. Yummy stuff. So, on Monday I walked down there and got me a tray. Since this is the day after a fast, there’s a background of hunger that pervades most of the day (for me anyways.) I also happen to love chocolate, and this particular store sells some good varieties. I thought about that on the way to get my sushi. And then, I did not buy any. It was a very nonchalant decision. You see Monday is also the day I got to one of my regular games, and one of the two hosts cooks a yummy dinner. I did not want to interfere with relishing that, plus she sometimes makes desserts.

The thing that struck me was that there was no struggle in that. I am used to their being one. As I looked at what was making the difference, I realized that the culprits were permission and lack of a big deal. On this protocol I am trying literally no foods are off the list. Of course I also want to be healthy, and I could use to drop some pounds, but that’s not the point. The way I learned this diet came strongly with the idea of removing taboo from foods.

I have total permission to nom chocolate if I want to. Both from the protocol I have chosen, and from myself. And, suddenly chocolate has lost a lot of it’s attraction.

I think there might be a deep secret here. A thing (activity, item, experience, situation) is not a big deal unless you make a big deal out of it. When you make a big deal out of something, it’s a big deal. This insight, like many, seems simple when said. But, also like many insights, you don’t get it until you, yourself get it.

I am not saying that some things are not important. That’s a different issue. Justice is important. Health is important. Liberty is important. Love is important.

It’s just that when they become a big deal they take on an artificial weight that deforms their impact. Suddenly the injustice might seem insurmountable, and we give up the idea of standing against it. Suddenly the taboo sexual adventure becomes a big deal and we can’t get it out of our heads. Suddenly chocolate cake becomes a big deal, and we end up binging in secret to try to assert our freedom in some bizarre way. We become driven by these things because they are such a big deal.

I say, screw that. It’s not such a big deal. Nothing is. Not in that twisted and soul crushing way. Life is for living. Someday we all die. Before that point comes along there are things that happen. Some need handling. Being free of the “big deal” means I am more free to skillfully, and I daresay playfully, apply my experience towards their successful resolution. That way things get done, I have less stress, and it’s more fun along the way. I call that a win-win.

There’s an old adage, “There are two rules to life; Don’t sweat the small shit, and it’s all small shit.” Well, it may not all be small shit, but it’s also not a big deal.

Tai Chi in the Park

Stone  Tai Chi

Twice a week, when I am in San Francisco, I go for walks with a friend and neighbor, Laura. We walk up around Dolores Park, and we chat about random things. I help her with thinking about her online presence, and she cooks food for me in trade on those days. That’s awesome because she is a major foodie, and an excellent cook! It’s an awesome barter set up.

We also do Tai Chi together on most of the walks. Laura used to be a student of mine when I was teaching Tai Chi regularly at a local yoga studio. I don’t teach regularly anymore, but Laura and I do a few sets on our walks.

It’s a great feeling to get some movement and mindfulness in on a sunny (and today windy) day in the park. We practice on a flat bit of concrete near the new kids playground, and the giggle and smiles from the kids are always a treat.

Today it brought up a lot of gratitude for me from my first 1,000 day vow. That vow was to do Tai Chi every day. I got a little crazy with my practice in those days. What started with 25 minutes a day ballooned up (while I ballooned down) to about 5 hours a day. I got pretty nuts about it.

I don’t see myself going back to 5 hours a day, but after that 1,000 days Tai Chi became part of who I am. It’s always there for me, at a moments notice. If I start to get uncomfortably stiff from being at the keyboard all morning, I can get up and go through a few movements and have my whole system pumped, and limbered. During my vow it got so deep into my system that many nights I would dream of practicing for hours, working on my form while I slept. Those dreams come by occasionally in little snippets, and I always wake up feeling refreshed after.

When I took my initial vow it was to make Tai Chi a habit. I came away with so much more than a habit. Tai Chi infused my whole system. Now doing Tai Chi is not doing Tai Chi, it’s just me being me. No matter what, I will always have Tai Chi with me to help keep my system healthy and strong.

It’s the same with my second vow of meditation. I have yet to take a day off from that practice, and I really don’t see that happening. Having been through the commitment of the vow, meditation is now something I always have at my disposal. I can take a pause, take a breath, and be back here and now. What used to sometimes take great effort, is now easy.

That’s the special characteristic of a vow of a number of days of practice. (You don’t have to go for 1,000, but I’m not going to stop you. 😉 ) Whatever you practice becomes something more than a practice. It becomes part of your life.

I thought I would share this bit of gratitude with you today. I hope you enjoyed it. Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to do a set of Tai Chi in my studio.