Years ago I was sitting with my daughter on a sled at the top of a hill, gazing out at the setting sun. Everyone else had gone home. The cheery, squealing, delight of children at play had faded, gradually giving way to empty space and the hushing silence of falling snow. We watched as the sun’s fires slowly melted into the far side of the earth. When the last of its glowing embers blackened into night, a cold, quiet settled on our little corner of the world. Night had come and with it the profound silence and stillness of winter.
As the frozen night air nipped at our faces, Maya and I nestled together, surrounded by an igloo of jackets, scarves, pants, hats and mittens. Stars shone overhead, like icy diamonds, sharing a frozen light from long, long ago. We sat and watched as that empty stillness settled onto the ground, slowly spreading out with the silent stealth of fog. The very sound of our breath was snatched from our mouths, disappearing into a voiceless world. The memory of Spring and all thought of dancing barefoot in the sun were also swallowed and buried, deep within the heart of the “not-doing” that is winter.
The movements of the T’ai Chi form are rooted in the concept of “wu wei”, “not-doing”. In the T’ai Chi Classics, the ancient writings that have guided the development of the art through the years, there is a saying:
“Be as still as a mountain, move like a great river.”
In T’ai Chi we must take the quiet of winter into our own hearts and listen…. for Spring, for movement, for the timing of, “when” … when to move. We listen for what Professor Cheng called “right timing”. The question of when and how to move in T’ai Chi, is answered in this quieting of the mind and listening with the heart. In the T’ai Chi Classics this is what is meant by “Be as still as a mountain”. We listen for the timing that allows us to stay connected to the ease within the movement, to the “flow”… what the Classics describe as “move like a great river”. It is essentially a question of stillness, of “not-doing” anything that disrupts our connection to that flow. In the words of the great Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, “In doing nothing, nothing is left undone”.
It is not the frontal cortex that decides when to move in T’ai Chi. We cannot reason our way to the timing of the flow. In T’ai Chi the “T” in “think” is too late. We have to feel, to listen, to be open, to be receptive and to follow. According to Professor Cheng, we need to “invest in loss”, so that we may learn to follow. In my understanding and personal experience, this relates to a loss of ego…to be willing to invest in the loss of subtle and not-so-subtle feelings of self-importance. It relates to the rigidity of my knowledge of how to do this thing we call T’ai Chi. On the brick wall of my self-awareness, right next to the doorway to the flow, there is an indentation. This indentation is where my head has repeatedly insisted is the correct location of that doorway to the flow.
Self-awareness comes with reflection. Just like looking at the surface of a lake, we need quiet and inactivity to see an accurate reflection…in a word, we need Winter.
One of the things I love about T’ai Chi is that what I learn in practicing the form is so transferrable to my life. That night, on a cold hillside with my daughter, was an example of “right-timing” in my life. In the “not-doing” of sitting in the snow, watching as day turned to night, I felt nurtured by my connection to my little Maya. I also felt connected to that cold silence that surrounded us. Little, tiny us, Maya and Michael, somewhere on the surface of the planet earth, sitting on a hillside in the dead of winter, aware and feeling connected to each other, to the season, to the world, to the setting sun, to the stars and to that within which it all resides.
The great physicist, Stephen Hawkings, was once asked if knowing that the Universe is so vast and limitless, with seemingly countless numbers of galaxies, stars and planets, made him feel small and insignificant. He replied that what he found amazing was that something so small and insignificant as one human being could comprehend something so vast and limitless as the Universe.
Practicing T’ai Chi with a quiet heart/mind carries within it the possibility of opening and connecting that same heart/mind to the body, to the emotions, to others, to the world and, in the immortal words of Dr. Seuss, to all that lies “On Beyond Zebra”.
I am looking forward to the coming session. I hope that you can join me.
All the best,
PS That little Maya is not so little anymore. She is graduating from college this May. That night on the hill with her was first held in my heart sixteen years ago.