Watching world-class surfers, such as Owen, Tyler or Mikey Wright riding challenging waves looks easy and even fun. However, when a novice learns to surf, it is not so pretty. There is a lot of falling and being thrown around by the waves. It takes time, effort, courage, perseverance and a good teacher to learn to surf well.
The Taoist philosophy has a major influence on Tai Chi. It emphasises bringing balance and harmony to one’s life. How can we learn to ride the waves of our lives and not be overwhelmed by them? Similar to surfing, it helps if you find a knowledgeable teacher who has a good understanding of the system. The Taoist philosophy helps you to understand yourself and the environment; it is the guiding principle to success. To use the surfing analogy, we could say that the first thing you should learn is how to swim. In the Taoist arts, it is like saying: learning to make your body strong and healthy which will also help you develop your mind and make for a more enjoyable life.
In Tai Chi or Wu Dao Gong, we aim to know our bodies on a deeper level. This involves learning to move more efficiently. A good surfer needs to find the right wave and understand how to get the most out of the ride. He also needs to have an adaptable body so that he can harmonise and flow, rather than fight the waves. In the Taoist arts, we learn to relax and use our bodies more naturally. Tension is a potential killer. Most of us do not understand how to relax and this causes all sorts of health issues in our lives. Without deep relaxation, our bodies do not rest efficiently and recover. In our lives, we need both yin relaxation and yang activity. If we do not get the balance right, we suffer. We all know how to tense up. This is a basic instinct and occurs when we feel threatened or fearful. On the other hand, relaxation seems to make us vulnerable. In the internal arts, we understand the value of relaxation and know that it takes practice to calm down and relax. From an energy point of view, it is about conserving our energy. From a strength perspective, it is about being able to use the whole body including the tendons and connective tissue, not just the muscles.
The study of the internal arts is to learn how to generate more power with less tension. This is noticeable in Push Hands which involves practising with a partner. It teaches you how to deal with a powerful force, still maintain your centre and keep your partner at bay without excessive tension or force. Push Hands develops this by strengthening the legs, loosening the waist, relaxing the shoulders, sensing your partner’s intention and learning to absorb and redirect your partner’s force. This is a fantastic exercise which is fun, challenging and instructive. Investing time and effort in this practice will pay great dividends to all students of the internal arts. Tai Chi students who have been attending the Thursday Push Hands course have quickly discovered their tension and stiffness. Yet they thought they were flowing and relaxed while doing the Tai Chi solo form. Push Hands is one of the best ways to identify your weaknesses and is very effective in addressing them.
In martial contests, force is used. The combatant with the greater, more accurate and faster delivery of force will usually win. In the internal arts, we rely on our foundation of tendon strength, relaxation and short force to achieve victory. In surfing, learning to be efficient and adaptable is similar to our philosophy of not using force against force. If not, it would be going against the flow of the wave or when two hammers meet and sparks fly, both are damaged. However, if the hammer comes into contact with a curtain, the force is absorbed and no damage is done to either. In your life, do you butt heads with everyone? If you do, you may get your way but at what cost? It consumes a lot of energy to live life this way and creates enemies. From a Taoist perspective, we follow the way of nature. Water is a great example. The great Taoist philosopher, Lao Tzu, stated that water is the softest thing in the world. Yet it can wear away, wash away, go around or over or under the most rigid things such as rocks and trees. If we learn to be more like water, that is, more able to adapt and yet be strong enough to endure hardship, we will flow through life like a surfer riding a wave, enjoying the experience instead of fighting and fearing it. Skiers adore powder snow, surfers love big waves, racing car drivers thrive on high speed and sailors look forward to the wind.
Since self-protection is such a strong instinctive and habitual way of reacting to challenges, we find it difficult to face our fears and weaknesses. To overcome this, we need to learn and do things that challenge us. No doubt every surfer has to overcome certain fears whether it be the fear of big waves or sharks, falling off the board or any number of obstacles that stand in their way of finally riding that wave. In the internal arts, we are not confronted by these potentially life-threatening circumstances, although we still have to overcome certain challenges physically and mentally. This includes learning to move in a foreign way, learning to relax while performing a physically demanding task, etc. If you are training in Wu Dao Gong, you have to deal with the power and speed of your opponent.
Life is full of challenges and the Taoist philosophy of yin and yang acknowledges this. The yin yang symbol shows the interconnectedness of the changes and how they constantly morph from one to another. Life is in constant flux. It is a mistaken belief to think that it is static like a rock. Do you want your life to be so fixed that it hardly changes? If you think this way, you will be greatly disappointed. An attitude that does not embrace change is similar to seeing the ocean when it is calm and thinking this is how it is all the time. Once we accept that things change, we are already in a better frame of mind to adapt. If we equip ourselves with tools to deal with the changes, we will feel more at home even when the weather is rough.
There is a story about a Zen master who was enjoying a meal at a famous restaurant in Japan. A geisha there attracted his attention. She moved with such elegance and naturalness that the master thought that she must be trained in Zen so he decided to test her. He called her over and said, “I would like to give you a gift.” He used his iron chopsticks to take a hot coal from the burner and passed it to her. She thanked him and manoeuvred the burning coal in her kimono sleeves. She went to the kitchen, changed the damaged kimono and returned to the Zen master’s table. The geisha then said, “I would now like to offer you a gift.” She took hot coal out of the brazier and offered it to her guest. The Zen master immediately took out a cigarette and said, “Just what I needed, thank you.” The Zen master was able to adapt naturally to whatever changes were presented to him.
The Taoists see change as an opportunity. They learn to flow with change instead of resisting it. When we are deep in our practice, we feel we are flowing and at one with the movements. We feel a strong connection to life. It is in us and we are in it. There are joy and contentment in the spontaneity of life and all it has to offer. At this level, life is great. Enjoy it!