Better With Age

After class the other day my student Harvey, who has studied with me for more than 15 years, asked me a pointed question: “How and why does a longtime practitioner maintain his or her interest in studying Tai Chi?” This caught my attention immediately, because he asked me to consider it from the advanced study point of view, not the more common basic level.

wu tu nan

Wu Tu Nan

After 50 years practicing Tai Chi, I admit that the shoe may be old, but it still fits.

I went home and wrote this question at the top of a page of wide-ruled yellow paper: “What is the attractive secret of Tai Chi that encourages people to play the game without getting bored?”

I immediately filled the page with notes outlining all the remarkable qualities of Tai Chi; for example, how the slow pace encourages curative postures and uniformity of movement, and how this allows us to craft our life instead of violating it. Tai Chi adjusts you to rhythms of action rarely seen in daily life. Conforming to an attack also teaches you to conform to terrain, timing, other classmates—a rainbow of patterns.

Another paragraph detailed the myriad interesting patterns that emerge the deeper you go into it, forming a world that you could only hope might be understandable. The more time passes, the more Tai Chi refines tactics for the mind and management for the body.

More writing outlined Tai Chi as a game, an exploration, a way to integrate instead of fragmenting. Tai Chi is always new; if you think the movements are repeated the same each time, look closer. That when you practice it inspires inquiry, one of the activities martial artists pursue. It gracefully encourages community—not just how good it feels to perform the routine in a group, but how it provides a necessary cohort to discuss internal experience, esoteric experience, both physical and emotional. Tai Chi provides both a vocabulary and a platform with which to interact.

Satisfied, I put the pad aside with the idea I would type up the pages the next day. And that was my mistake, because once I began typing up the pages, I realized I had listed some pretty fine benefits of longtime Tai Chi practice, but I hadn’t answered Harvey’s question. He wasn’t asking me what was good about Tai Chi; he was asking me what about it hooks longtime martial artists—two different questions. Damn!

I made a pot of tea and started over.

First, I realized that, for me at least, the question was backward. It’s like asking why you keep eating enjoyable food. Tai Chi rather rapidly establishes itself as very pleasant physically: pure graceful movements, a high level of physical control, and a problem-solving matrix, all the while keeping body and mind engaged. But it’s not that Tai Chi is relaxing; it’s that it lets you access that relaxation on demand, but only after a long familiarity. A Tai Chi player interacts with Tai Chi, ascending levels that are both more difficult and more relaxing.

I imagined an architecturally beautiful, open-to-the-public house with many rooms. All rooms are available, but people who spend time in this house will start to see things the casual visitor might not: design, clever arrangements, hidden tools and appliances, efficient storage. With a little research, these elements become even more intriguing. Details take on meaning, and curiosity will not leave you alone, and may even trail you into the neighboring house.

I mostly practice Bagua and Long Fist, yet more than once I have solved problems from those systems in Tai Chi. For one thing, Tai Chi’s famous slowness allows for all sorts of plants to grow from seed planted there.

Sure, it’s personal. Others might swear it is the ongoing health benefits that hold their interest, or the never-ending quest for impossible perfection. For me, it is like a close friend who continually taunts me to unlock her wisdom.

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