Chapter 41 of the Tao Te Ching
A wise student hears the Tao and practices it diligently
An average student hears of the Tao and gives it thought
A foolish student hears the Tao and laughs aloud
If there were no laughter it would not be the Tao
This is a story that I have experienced through teaching Qi gong in a retirement community. It is a lesson about our own obstinacy.
There is an 82-year-old woman who attends my class—I’ll call her Franny. She is in top physical shape, with great posture, a clear mind, and a strong walk, though she is legally blind. She is a spitfire, is often very bossy, and usually blames others for her problems.
Franny has been one of my most loyal students, to the point of pushing the more sedimentary residents to come to class, sometimes even berating them if they miss. However, her daily complaint of my Qi gong routine is that it is “too easy.” She used to do vigorous aerobics and sometimes announces to the class how Qi gong is wimpy compared to aerobics. Many times Franny tells people what a great teacher I am, although she qualifies it by lamenting that I teach this “benign” exercise to old people. She also blames the other lame "inmates" for my "going soft" on the routine. Every one in the community fears her temper yet admires her physical prowess.
Yet she frequently asks me to correct her. Often I glance around as we meditate and see Franny nervously tapping her foot or hand, or moving her head half-heartedly. So my daily mantra during class is, "Listen to your internal energy," "Listen to your breath," "Listen to your heart rate," "Just listen to anything!" Although her external form is the best in my Qi gong class, and her posture is better than most with a military career, she is still unable to let herself go into meditation.
An important part of my class teaching is about moving from a balanced center. I explain that one fall for an elderly person can forever change the quality of their life. I go into great detail, demonstrating that simply reaching for a glass of water or answering the phone without moving consciously could be so devastating that you might never walk again. Elderly people must weigh the value of doing something quickly against the risk of falling. They must constantly ask themselves if rushing to a phone call is worth losing their ability to walk. I spend many one-on-one hours teaching Franny how to walk with a balanced center, especially since she is blind and needs to use extra caution. When in a group, she often laughs off what she’s learned, saying “See, my new ‘sexy walk’ Chris taught me!”
One day Franny’s bitterness and anger at the other “inmates” got a bit out of hand, and she lashed out at two other residents for petty reasons. The residents complained to the administrator, who spoke with Franny about it and told her that she was concerned that Franny’s anger was heading her towards a stroke. It was a legitimate concern, as excessive anger has been shown to push elderly people closer to a serious stroke.
Franny told me what the administrator said, and I knew that she needed some type of stress reliever as soon as possible. I took her to a local herbal shop where she trusts the owner, who spent time listening to her and then suggested an inexpensive bottle of Chinese herbal pill (total cost $4). The following day the administrator referred her to a psychiatrist, who prescribed a pharmaceutical drug that costs much more than the herbs. I worked with Franny on her breathing and explained how slow, deep breathing can relieve stress. Within a couple of days, four people had offered their help: me as her Qi gong teacher, the residence’s administrator, the psychiatrist, and her herbalist friend.
I returned to work three days later, and Franny immediately handed me the bottle of Chinese medicine, saying, “I won’t be needing this!” Her attitude was “This is who I am, I will not change.” She repeated it so many times I lost count. Later that day some university grad students arrived to give each resident a psychological evaluation test. I witnessed Franny’s responses, which were almost all extremely hard on herself. I have seen no equals in her physical shape at her age, and yet she still answered that she was mediocre at best. She was comparing herself now to herself as a young woman, an unfair comparison for anyone to make.
After the evaluation, Franny told me about her meeting with the psychiatrist. She reported that he said she is perfectly normal. (I suppose no one can know what he really said.) Then she berated the administrator’s assessment of her health, claiming the administrator was trying to gain control over her. In the meantime I spent hours talking with her, trying to help her cope with this long transition, yet she never yielded an inch.
Wednesday of the following week I went into work and was immediately sent to Franny’s room to take her to the hospital. She had fallen and broken her hip. But she quickly corrected me—she did not fall, she tripped over a wire in her room. It was the wire’s fault. The wire got in her way. There was subtle language happening. Blaming, not accepting. Tripping, not falling. Fighting the inevitable. She programmed her mind to deny the aging process by constantly changing terms, blaming others for her problems. She had stopped listening and sealed herself off from the inevitable truth of the human condition. On the way to the emergency room she constantly repeated, “I am not like those old people.” She could not admit that she was aging.
Franny’s hip has healed, and she returned to my classes. Still, she argues with other residents in class and insults people at nearly every opportunity. Sometimes her attitude makes me laugh out loud, but I know that her bitterness is only harming her and others around her. She is a lesson to me about how I want to age, how to accept the inevitable.
In T’ai Chi we seek to absorb the reality but then guide it safely away from us. If an energy comes towards us, we must communicate with it. This is the essence of Taoism. Most people fight energy straight on. If it is a bigger force, they lose the fight and that’s that. No dialogue. Aging is an energy, time and gravity wearing on our bodies. Taoists do not fight this process but instead speak with it, understand it, and yield to it. People who scoff at the Tao fight the inevitable head on.
Chapter 76 of the Tao Te Ching says,
“A man is born gentle and weak,
At his death he is hard and stiff.
Green plants are tender and filled with sap,
At their death they are withered and dry.
Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death,
The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.
Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle,
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.
The hard and strong will fall,
The soft and weak will overcome.”