A Life Lesson in Tai Chi

Dear Friends of Crossings,

The following seasonal newsletter is written by Crossings teacher colleague – Michael Ward. Michael is a long-standing, foundational instructor in our Education Program and is known in the wider Silver Spring community as a leader in Tai Chi instruction. Please enjoy this beautiful personal harvest, and come to Crossings to experience Tai Chi with Michael.

A Life Lesson in Tai Chi from my mother

My mom recently taught me a lesson in the dance of living without fear. I was visiting her in my home state of Indiana a couple of weeks ago. It was a surprise visit, as I had just been out to Indiana for a family reunion a month before. To understand the lesson, you must first know a little about my mother.

My mom is 89 years old. She grew up on the prairie of South Dakota. Growing up her family lived in a sod and tarpaper shack. The living arrangements were later upgraded to a train car. Mom is always quick to point out that it was a Pullman car, adding, “It’s not like we lived in a cattle car.” In truth, my grandfather used the “Pullman car” as the foundation around which he later built what would become the rest of the family home.

Living in South Dakota, my mom’s family had to endure the extreme weather that is common to the Northern Plains. My Uncle Jim inadvertently gave me an insight into the effect South Dakota weather can have on a person over time. He had moved to the eastern slope of Oregon, AKA the sunny side of the mountains, and was trying to talk me into moving there, too. In listening to his sales pitch, I noticed he had a peculiar way of talking about the wonders of eastern Oregon. Hidden in every accolade attributed to eastern Oregon was the simple fact that it was “not-South Dakota”. He praised eastern Oregon saying, “It’s not 110 degrees in the summer… It’s not 40 below zero in the winter… you don’t get blizzards with 12 foot drifts…There aren’t any tornadoes…” and on and on.

I think the harsh weather of the Northern Plains reinforced the natural tendency of my mom and her family to be reserved in their personal interactions. They were German. Emotionally they were practitioners of the old adage, “keep your cards close to your chest”. The river was deep, but on the surface there was not a lot of information about what was happening down below. I suspect their reserve was a way of conserving energy that might later be needed for something more closely related to survival than self-expression. That is not to say that there was no excitement. One passion Grandma allowed herself was the game of Scrabble. I learned the hard way that she suffered no fools when it came to playing it.

Grandma, mom, Uncle Bob and I were playing, when Grandma put down the word, “edge”. Uncle Bob added a word that crossed the end of “edge” to form the word, “edger”. Grandma got really upset. I could tell because she shifted her weight (all 98 pounds of it) in her seat, stared at the board, and groused under her breath, that “edger” was not a word. Bob patiently explained the tool used to trim the grass at the edge of the sidewalk. After Bob’s third shot at describing the tool, Grandma finally relented and begrudgingly allowed it to pass. I thought to myself this would be a great time to get Grandma to lighten up and laugh. On my turn I put a “w” in front of “edger” to form the word, “wedger”. Coming so close on the heels of the indignity of having allowed “edger”, that newfangled tool, to invade her Scrabble game, Grandma was not about to get pushed around again. I thought she would go apoplectic. She immediately sat bolt upright in her seat and repeated several times, “that’s not a word, that’s not a word, that’s not a word!” She demanded that “wedger” be removed from the board. I let her catch her breath. Then, with a sheepish grin I tried to explain the meaning of “wedger” using a gentle inquiry. “Grandma,” I asked, “didn’t you or Grandpa ever put a wedger on a horse race?”

No stand up comic has ever fallen as flat as I did with that little joke. Without the slightest hint that might acknowledge the placement of my “w” had been an attempt at humor, she simply repeated, “Its not a word.” Her tone was not mean at all. It matter-of-factly communicated that my effort at humor was simply inappropriate. It was as if she was on the verge of formulating a counterproposal to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and I had interjected into her thought process a request for her coffeecake recipe. I discovered that if there was a time for joking with Grandma, it was not during a game of Scrabble.

All this is to say that it was a bit out of character, when, on my most recent visit to Indiana, my mom was so overt, so effusive and so public in expressing the joy she felt in seeing me standing on her doorstep. She was soooooo happy to see me. She was glowing. Her eyes sparkled. Their light shone unaffected by flesh and bone, or any emotional defenses I may have possessed, and came to rest right inside my heart. I was humbled and speechless. My mom has always been a loving person, her inner sanctum filled by work in the soup kitchen, the community food bank, or helping other widows adjust to life without their spouses. I think her heart has always been full. I just don’t remember her ever being so open and vulnerable in allowing me to see how full.

As I said, Mom was not always this open. My dad died of cancer when I was 19 years old. There were seven kids. I had five younger siblings and an older sister. It was fast. In three months he went from a diagnosis and weighing over 200 pounds to being a 90-pound skeleton. I remember driving mom back from the hospital shortly after we had learned that his cancer was terminal. She and dad had talked. All she said was that their visit together was worth 23 years of marriage.

I bring my father’s death into this because over the years, as I have slowly unburied myself from my own feeling of grief and loss, I have also begun to understand my mother’s courage. Hers (and I think, potentially, everyone’s) has been the courage needed to balance, on a daily basis, the fear of crushing loss with the discovery of the joy that comes with being liberated from that fear.

I think knowing that she has a limited time left to be walking this earth has been a liberating force for my mother. That awareness has given her the courage to be fearless in the expression of her own joy. Courage may sound like a strange word to use in the context of expressing joy, but consider this. The definition of courage is knowing something to be dangerous, or painful and facing it anyway. It comes from “cor”, the Latin word for heart. What could be more courageous than living a joyful life? In the face of all the losses we know we will have to endure, not the least of which is our own demise, what could be more courageous than to open our hearts to joy and wonder?

Wolfe Lowenthal, a student of Professor Cheng, once wrote that, in life, there is being open to the chi… and everything else is fear. Most people can readily acknowledge big fears like the loss of a loved one, or our own death. What we are often less aware of is the role that little fears play in our daily lives. We might call them worries, or embarrassments, or rejections, but in the end, they represent a contraction of the life force, a limitation, or restriction being placed on how freely we live our lives. That is a restriction of our energy (chi). Tai Chi is all about awareness. Ben Lo (another of Professor Cheng’s senior students) said that you cannot relax something until you are aware that it is tense. We must first become aware of the limitations we place on ourselves, before we can hope to release them. The practice of becoming more aware and more open to our chi is available to us all day long in everything we do. In exercising the courage to keep our hearts open in our daily lives, we build the courage to do so when the circumstances are much more extreme.

The lesson my mother taught me was one of example. She said nothing. She did nothing. She simply allowed that which was in her heart to flow unimpeded out into the world. She had the clarity of heart needed to understand that anytime we see each other, it could be the last time we see each other. That awareness did not bring fear, but fostered the courage to free her spirit and allow an unfiltered expression of what she felt in her heart.

The challenge of bringing a flowing vitality and awareness to our daily lives is the same one we face in our T’ai Chi practice. Keeping what is important, yet part of a daily routine, from becoming stale and rote is no easy task. Maggie Newman has said repeatedly in her classes that the longer you practice T’ai Chi, the more susceptible you become to doing a rote form, repeating the same movements, but without awareness. Maggie has also quoted Professor Cheng as having said that we should not allow the form to become “an empty gesture”.

The T’ai Chi Classics say, “the form is like that of a falcon about to seize a rabbit, and the spirit is like that of a cat about to catch a rat.” These are images of intense focus, concentrated awareness, and stored energy about to be released. In Tai Chi the storing, or nurturing of the energy is done in the repetition of the movements in our daily practice. Whether our practice is the repetition of our T’ai Chi form, or the repetition of the tasks that comprise our daily interactions with the people we care about most, by infusing that practice with an awareness of the important place it has in our lives, we open ourselves to a treasure trove of energy. Realizing that anytime can be the last time, is not a cause for sorrow. Rather it is a cause for celebration of this moment, allowing us to open more fully to all that lies about us waiting for our acknowledgement of its presence.

So, the Tai Chi lesson from my mom was…

To do my form as if it was the last time I would ever do it in this life.

The life lesson from her was…

To let the light shine,
back to her and out into the world.
To hold my daughter’s hand,
To kiss my wife,
To drink a glass of water,
To rake the leaves,
To hug my son,
To feel the sun’s warmth on my skin,
To breathe,
To write to all of you…

As if it was the last time I would ever do it in this life.

I wish you all the fullness your hearts can hold…

And then some.


PS …or maybe she was just happy to see me?



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