Cleaning the Window Glass

Final Thought, August 2010

Some of you might know that I’ve been studying Tai Chi for over a year now. I am studying the “nei da quan” or internal martial arts of Tai Chi, which means that I am studying how to control my body’s internal energy as well as the energy that directly surrounds my body in what is thought of as your body’s sphere, aura, etc. At this stage, that doesn’t include movement. I’m listening, meditating on two feet, cycling my body’s energy with my mind. Some people call this “standing like a tree,” in that trees are still from the observer’s perspective, but the action under the bark is plentiful. After each session, I’m refreshed and sweaty, just as if I’d gone for a run or played basketball with friends. What’s more, my mind is alert. It feels like I’ve had a shower on the inside.

Zhang Laoshi (teacher Zhang, my master) is a man in his mid-fifties who glitters with youth the way a stream captures sunlight. He’s not tall but he’s lilthe and trim. When he teaches the advanced students the various tai chi poses, with each shifting movement he seems to be able to lift himself off the ground just slightly and almost imperceptibly, the way an inflated balloon doesn’t quite ever touch the ground even if it’s been placed there directly. Yet, when I look at his feet, they’re on the ground. It’s a feeling that I see or feel in the seeing, I’m not sure which. He also has the (occasionally annoying) ability to look into my face and report on the status of my health, including whether or not I have been busy or rested and whether or not I’m happy. With one light touch of my arm as I stand in study (zhan zhuang), he can identify where in my energy flow there are blockages and what part of my body is tense, unable to breathe, blocked, etc.

But, most importantly, Zhang Laoshi reminds me and all the other students to be present. He challenges us to be alert and conscious in every moment. He does so by being so.

He does not accept money for his services. He feels that this is contradictory to the nature of the tradition. It’s about passing down a centuries-old wisdom, he says, and this has always been free for willing and hardworking students. He teaches out of a local park just like his teacher did before him, and his teacher’s teacher, and his teacher’s teacher’s teacher before that. It’s taught on the same piece of land where it’s been taught for generations.

I’m telling you about my teacher and about my practice because I just got word that the festival that was booked on September 3rd in Dong Bei province has cancelled all of its foreign performers. We were booked and contracted, but the approvals for our performances were not issued; they were declined. The officially issued reason is because Bjork came to China almost two years ago and said “Tibet Tibet!” on stage during her concert. The government doesn’t want foreigners speaking out about sensitive issues in China. They don’t want copycats.

I was originally indignant and angry. For one, they shouldn’t take it so personally! Tibet & China’s relationship is an extremely complex issue and Bjork can’t possibly understand the whole story, nor did she embody any understanding by just yelling out “Tibet!” twice. Why does the government need to make such a big deal out of it? For two, the blatant racial profiling that is now happening in the dismissal of our services (i.e. all foreign bands = all non-Chinese bands) is preposterous. We all have something to say, including the Chinese artists, but most of us are smart enough to understand the political climate in which we’re approaching a microphone! There are ways to say what you want to say without pissing off a whole lot of stiff suits. And finally, censorship just sucks. It’s the complete opposite of art. It’s arbitrary and despotic.

Thus began my black cloud mood that trailed me into the park for Tai Chi today. Zhang Laoshi asked me what was wrong as soon as he saw me. My smile must have been strained. I am the only foreigner he teaches. In fact, I’m told that I’m the first foreigner he’s ever taught. When I explained the situation, he threw his head back and laughed. He reminded me that I was giving the decision power by letting it upset me. I started to laugh then too. I am so grateful for his faith and patience with me. He unravels the dense language of this spiritual practice with every class and today, he re-taught me how anger is like a dam in the energy river of our systems. It stops us. It stops us from moving.


After I had finished my practice, he did some playing with the more advanced students. I’m glad I stuck around to watch. He can just take one hand and touch their arms without applying force and they’ll suddenly be propelled ten feet away from him as though they were bouncing beach balls. It’s never aggressive and the students report that its like a wind of energy has thrown them backwards, but that it doesn’t even have a physical sensation or the texture of force the way wind does, the way it lifts the hairs up on your arms for instance, at its least forceful. They laugh when they’re bouncing, as though laughing is the only possible response. It’s like magic. Supernatural.

I laugh too.

It’s all about staying present, he says. Slowly but surely, I’m learning to quiet the surface (reactionary) thoughts—thoughts that are like dirt on a glass window impairing vision—and to just stay present and clear. Tai Chi, for me, is about learning not only to listen to my body and my body’s energy, but to shut off the mind, to go beyond “thinking about not thinking” in order to achieve that space where time is suspended and there is only the Now.

I have so far to go.

So what if that gig is cancelled? There will be others. For now, it’s not important. Right now, there’s only laughter.

I wish you all the best, as always.


I Have No Doubt

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