Taiji is an integral part of my life, but I rarely talk about it. I’ve thought about why that is, but I can’t come up with a definite answer. I’ve decided to blog about it instead because I find that I can order my thoughts better when I write them down. Or type them out as the case may be. By the way, as an aside, I’ve been having a comma crisis lately. I like commas, and I use them liberally. In the past week or two, I’ve been questioning whether I am using them too liberally. It’s disconcerting, but it’s a good analogy to where I am taiji-wise*. I will get to that in a second, but I’m going to meander aimlessly a bit first, because that’s how I roll. Come to think of it, it’s also a good analogy for my approach to taiji.
I started taking taiji for the first time many moons ago. It was a disaster for many reasons, and I quit after approximately a year. It wasn’t the taiji that drove me away, but the teacher, and it left a bitter taste in my mouth for several years. Still, there was something about taiji that drew me to it, and roughly seven years ago, I started researching different local studios, and I had several criteria I needed the studio to meet. One, no uniforms. I don’t like uniforms because they bespeak of group think to me. I have problems with authority with reason (some good, some bad), and I do not like conforming to what I consider to be random and senseless rules. Two, I didn’t want a studio that was New Agey because I think a lot of that shit is co-opted from Asian culture without any deeper understanding. It grates on me to see practitioners embrace and adopt the outer trappings of the practice while remaining firmly rooted in this world. It’s a way of picking and choosing that doesn’t sit well with me. Three, I wanted a female teacher. One of my (many) gripes with the first studio was that it didn’t have many female teachers. I remember asking my male teacher (not the main teacher, but one of his acolytes) a question about where to position my arms because my boobs got in the way. He made a juvenile joke about it, and I felt like an idiot for asking. It’s a fact of life, though, that I have big boobs that get in the way sometimes. I would have liked someone who could talk about it in a mature, matter-of-fact way. Four, I wanted it to be within 15 miles of my house. Five, I wanted a studio that didn’t shy away from taiji being a martial art.
Once I found my studio, it was rough going at first. The Solo Form is the basis for all of taiji, and it’s the only thing I learned in the first three or four years. It’s not politic of me to say this, but I didn’t like the Solo Form as I was learning it. I didn’t find it relaxing or meditative–it was merely irritating to me. It’s not something I can explain very well, but I’d just get impatient every time we focused on the Solo Form. In addition, we’d start with warm-ups (which were fine) and standing meditation, the latter which I absolutely hated. My brain is always jumping all over the place, and trying to quiet it is folly. In addition, I started having flashbacks during meditation, which was extremely harrowing. It got so bad, I had to take a break from meditating for a few years, with my teacher’s blessing.
That experience with meditation had such a deep (negative) impact on me, and I wanted to know if other people felt the same way. I Googled it (because that’s what I do), and I found out that I wasn’t the only one who had a profoundly negative reaction to meditation. Dr. Willoughby Britton, a neuroscience researcher and clinical psychologist who is an assistant professor at Brown University, has been researching the negative effects of meditation with the Dark Night project. This includes a place called the Cheetah House that talks to people recovering from the adverse effects of meditation.
I’ve joined in on the standing meditation in class again, and while I don’t have flashbacks any longer, I still don’t like it. I view it as something to suffer through, not something to enjoy. I think the problem for me is that I’ve developed a coping mechanism for the constant chatter in my brain, and meditation cuts right through that coping mechanism. When I first started meditating, I wasn’t ready to give up my coping mechanism. Psych 101: Never force someone to give up an illusion if you have nothing to replace it with. This falls in the same category. My coping mechanism for dealing with the voices in my head is to do several things at one time. I usually have a video of some sort going while I’m surfing the web or writing or whatever. As I’m writing this post, I’m watching videos on YouTube and the Vikings game at the same time. By the way, I’m really glad I’m not as into sports as I used to be. The Vikes will raise your hopes only to smash them to bits.
Anyway, if I sleep in my bed at night,** I set my white noise machine on high. I also wear a sleep mask and earplugs, no matter where I’m sleeping. The white noise machine is ostensibly for blocking outside noise, but it sometimes has a dulling effect on my thoughts as well. it’s a two-edge sword, however, as the minute I lie down, I’m wide awake. It’s been the bane of my life that no matter how tired I am, I can’t fall asleep easily. It’s better now than it has been in the past, but sleep is still no friend of mine.
Back to meditation. These days, I do it, but I still hate it. I no longer have the flashbacks, but I’m also still not capable of actually meditating. What I do instead is write something in my head as we go through the six postures. During NaNoWriMo, it was the novel I was working on. This month, it’s whatever post I’m working on that day. It was a relief to find out I wasn’t the only one who struggles with it in a very negative way. I feel the same way about yoga, by the way. The few times I’ve done it, I’ve HATED it. Other people say, “Oh, it’s so relaxing and cleansing,” and I want to punch them in the mouth. I am tense, uptight, and unhappy any time I do yoga. One time, I’m sure it’s because the person leading it pushed me to go further into the pose than I was comfortable doing, but I hurt when it was done. My conclusion is that yoga isn’t for me, and that’s fine.
So, the first few years of my taiji practice were more a trial than restful or relaxing for me. I knew intellectually that it was good for me, but I didn’t feel it. The Solo Form itself wasn’t that hard for me to learn–the sequence, I mean. I’ve always been a quick study, which is sometimes a detriment. Taiji is good for your health in a variety of ways. It reduces stress; it boosts your immunity; it’s good for your bones. These are just a few of the concrete benefits you can receive from taiji. I knew most of the benefits going into taiji, and while I considered them a nice bonus, they were never the reason I started taiji in the first place. Because of the trauma in my life, I’ve developed an attitude of ‘don’t fuck with me’ that served me well–up until a point. Ninety-five percent of people on the streets wouldn’t mess with me, but I knew that I had nothing to back up the puffery if the other five percent decided to get up in my face. I wanted to be able to depend on something other than bravado, and I’ve always been drawn to martial arts for one reason or another.
I didn’t want to do a hard style because the philosophical side of the internal styles appealed to me. Also, the hard styles seemed to play into the ‘no pain, no gain’ mentality, which was something I was trying to get away from. I was wavering between aikido and taiji, and in the end, I went with the latter because it seemed more like a martial art than did aikido. I knew that it would take time to actually be able to apply what I’ve learned in taiji, but I wasn’t anticipating starting a bar fight any time soon, so I was OK with taking my sweet time learning the basics. Except, I didn’t realize exactly how long it would take. It’s seven years later, and I still wouldn’t feel completely comfortable using my taiji to defend myself. Fortunately, my teacher has taught me some chin na (joint manipulation) techniques that would probably see me through in a pinch.
I also didn’t realize how unmotivated I would be to practice. No matter how much I’d tell myself that I should practice when I didn’t have class, I just wouldn’t do it. I tried a few times, but I was resentful with each step. I gave up practicing because it was making me not want to go to class at all, which, despite my struggles with the Solo Form, I kept attending every week. Taiji is known as the lazy martial art because one of the basic principles is to exert the minimal amount of energy needed to incur the maximum result. No extraneous movements, no unnecessary flourishes. My laziness exceeds that definition, though, and it’s something I’m trying to work on. One way I countered that was to start attending classes more than once a week. I figured if I’m not practicing at home, at least I can get in my practice during those classes. Currently, I am taking three classes a week with a fourth one focusing on Push Hands (women only, yo!) every other week. I’m also taking private lessons from my teacher once a month in which I’m learning the Saber Form.
I’ve learned several things from taiji over the years. I am claustrophobic and used to really hate crowds. Now, while I still don’t like them, I don’t avoid them at any cost as I used to. I can find holes in crowds through which I can slip, which makes being in said crowds more tolerable. I am still as clumsy as ever, but i don’t hurt myself nearly as much. I have some muscle as it were to back up the bravado, which gives me more confidence than I’ve had before. I’ve learned a few things about myself as well. I used to think I was a pacifist. During the time when I was on hiatus from meditation, I was walking the circle in Bagua,*** focusing on the ‘enemy’ in the middle of the circle. As I was walking, I had a flash of, “If it’s him or me, then I’ll kill him”. It freaked me the fuck out, but talking it over with my teacher helped me to see that it was just my survival instinct kicking in. I used to think I didn’t deserve to be alive, and this was the first indication that I felt like I mattered.
The more shocking realization was that I fucking love weapons. After I learned the Solo Form, my teacher started encouraging me to learn the sword. I hemmed and hawed, but the minute she put a wooden sword in my hand, I felt as if I were coming home. It was an extension of my hand, and suddenly, I was eager to learn the Sword Form. The video above is of Professor Cheng Man-Ching doing the Sword Form, and it’s exquisite. I took to the Form as if it was what I was born to be doing, and I learned it as quickly as I possibly could. I even practiced at home, which as I said before, wasn’t something I did at all. I even broke a light fixture with my wooden sword because I was so excited about practicing. I now have a steel sword, with the blade dull, of course. I came alive while learning the Sword Form, and it felt like dancing to me. This. This is what I wanted from taiji. it took a while to get there, but it was definitely worth the wait.
It’s funny, though, that I had people appalled that there are weapons in taiji. I know it has somewhat of groovy reputation in America–oh, it’s just move languidly and feel loosey-goosey in your bones. There are people who take taiji only for the health benefits, and while that’s fine, it’s as much martial as it is art. I started warming up to the Solo Form when my teacher began showing us the applications for the posture. Once I could see, say, how you can break someone’s nose with the back of your wrist, I was much more interested in the Solo Form. The Sword Form’s applications are more immediately noticeable–at least some of them are. It’s hard to miss when you’re thrusting your sword into someone’s throat, for example. But, while it’s a weapon, it’s also taiji, which means the same principles apply. Minimal movement, proper alignment resulting into power,
Once again, this is running long, so I’m going to wrap it up here and pick it up in a later post.
*That was a very short side road this time!
**I usually sleep on the couch. Then, I just play a video on my laptop as I drift off to sleep.
***Another martial art.