Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The True Power in Tai Chi

Recently one of my martial arts friends asked me to work out, and I had to decline because of the broken scaphoid bone in my wrist—an old injury—and two other recent injuries. My knee most probably has a tear in a tendon from walking on the broken sidewalks in India with 100 lbs of luggage this summer, and my shoulder tendon has been burning every time I reach for something. Alas, the sounds of a wimp! But, hey, that is the true state of my body.

My friend’s response, “Very problematic, there are more than a few pro (motorcycle) racers who had to retire just because they broke that bone [the scaphoid]. It wouldn't heal and that was it. Such a small bone, but it can be such a bitch!”

After reading that email I immediately felt the loneliness of retirement and even more so, the loss of identity. I have been managing pain by rationing my martial arts workouts literally for 20 some-odd years. My wrist can only take so much activity. But maybe it is time to face facts. I am a type A personality and not the typical kind of person you find at a meditation class. I love sparring and getting hit and all that, but being type A means that I push it too far too often. Even my wife has been getting on me for instilling the martial ethic into my young son.

All my life I have been type A. When I was picked on in high school by the football team, I didn’t just rollover and take it like everyone else. I started to box, I ran 8 miles a day, punched the heavy bag for hours per day, and I did push-ups and sit-ups. My workouts lasted for hours. My work reaped the success I sought, and by the time I was a junior, I was no longer being picked on. Then when high school was over and I had to get serious about something society valued, I chose to be an artist. Of course in typical type A fashion I again went over the top with drugs, alcohol, and all that comes with that lifestyle. These activities led me to have some minor health issues.

This was the original push to get me to seek out Tai chi, because it is recommended for type A personalities. Many of my injuries and heath issues were linked to this type A drive. I changed many of my habits, like my expression of anger, slamming my fist on a desk, which took a toll on my body. But in time I gravitated back to the more martial aspects of Tai Chi and found a way to keep the martial artist in me alive. In Tai Chi Chin Na I found Jiu Jitsu correlates, and in Tai Chi sword I saw similar characteristics with Kali stick fighting. Again I was using Tai Chi as martial training, not solely as a health exercise, further exacerbating my wrist injuries.

Maybe because of this persistent injury, I am starting to see Tai Chi from a different perspective, as injuries always have a habit of inspiring. I used to think that a Tai Chi master could heal broken bones and beat a 25-year-old professional fighter. When I first started Tai Chi I believed that by simply practicing Qi gong and Tai Chi I could heal my body to a superhuman level. I thought by developing Qi, I would be able to throw a football player 10 feet and that I would never get sick. In my 12 years of serious Tai Chi practice I see that it is not the cultivation of a superhuman ability but some thing far more simplistic. It is the opposite of type A—it is about yielding control and letting things come to fruition on their own. Accomplishing that is harder than breaking coconuts and throwing heavier opponents to the ground.

A famous Tai Chi master came up with a phrase that explains that the essence of Tai Chi; “invest in loss.” This simple concept has been a struggle for me since I began my practice. As a westerner in an eastern practice, I have a hard time reconciling the two approaches. The westerner in me asks, “how did the US become a superpower but by being type A?” Getting to shape the world in a major way is no small accomplishment. Eastern wisdom tells us this is short-term, it will pass. I wholeheartedly agree, but it is comfortable being on top even if it is for a relatively short period of time, like 500 to 1,000 years. Eastern wisdom is beautiful, and it is one of the best ways for all of us to coexist in a world that needs a way of curbing excessive human consumption. If we regulated our desires, many of the issues surrounding global warming could be attenuated.

Giving up martial arts is really hard. It is addictive for me because in martial arts you gain victory by defending against would-be attackers—and to give up creates a certain cognitive dissonance. The whole point of your martial life is to defend yourself. Not being able to do that is to deny everything that you worked so hard to acquire all your life. But just as a champion’s life is so short because there is always going to be someone younger and stronger willing to knock you down for the glory, one must eventually yield.

At this stage in the game for me, Tai Chi is not a miracle cure or a superhuman growth supplement but a form of exercise that can keep me active, which is a miracle in itself. It is also a means of managing pain and that translates directly into living an active life. As it is now with my wrist I could easily stop working out as working out brings pain. Tai chi allows me not to quit and to avoid that slippery slope of inactivity but instead to persevere.

The true power of Tai Chi is a far cry from the hype of internal martial arts promoters for one simple reason: there is no mysterious, esoteric secret. It is the practice of overcoming the part of you that looks for short-term victories and instant gratification. It helps you understand the bigger picture, but with that comes responsibilities and sacrifices. It comes by letting go of your desire to win.