The Power of Yielding: Getting it Done By Not Doing It.
by Fred Lehrman
“By non-action, all things are accomplished… Without leaving his house, the Sage knows everything in the world
...My words are easy to understand.”
Dao Te Ching
Easy to understand? I suppose so, if you understand them. Lao-tze refused to compromise his readers by telling them that which could not be told. In this way he transmitted intact his insight, his “crazy wisdom ,” across 2500 years and into the lives of people who, for the time, find themselves on a planet where power games threaten the scene of the game itself.
I want to introduce Daoism as a “Way” of proceeding from here in extricating ourselves from our own clutches. Taijiquan is the best known form in which to take the medicine.
Taiji is a physical practice based on the observations of nature brought forth in the writing of Lao-tze, whose own thought was shaped by his study of the I Ching, or Book of Change, and of the Nei Ching, the classic treatise of Chinese medicine. Taiji has suddenly begun to have a wide popularity in the West; there is even a nationwide television series which surprises and puzzles innocent channel-browsers. But, what is it really about? And how can the study of Taiji assist you in achieving your intentions, whether they be changing a personal situation, setting up a new community where life works better for everyone, or facing the whole problem on a global level? The clue is in the paradox of non action; and the way I would like to formulate the challenge for now is thus: “Obviously, I simply am: yet it seems that I must always try to be.”
When you find yourself at the beginning of your first Taiji class, you will soon realize this is unlike anything else you have ever tried to learn. This is because it appears at first not even to be like itself. You are asked to stand quietly, with you feet-heels together, toes naturally apart – flat and relaxed directly under you (“Where else could they be?” your mind asks.) Then you are asked to stand there, right where you’re standing, nowhere else, not anywhere you were earlier or might be tomorrow. At this point some interesting things are starting to go on in your body, you notice that you really are there more, that you are denser, more compact, and more aware.
What has happened is that the Qi, the vital, live energy of your body and mind, has begun to sense itself. Continuing, degree by degree, aspect by aspect, to learn to just stand there (which your already doing), prepares a new body, a body of Qi rather than muscle and bone, with which you are going to move through the slow, evenly evolving attitudes of the Taijiquan (literally, “Extreme Ultimate Discipline”; quan also means “Fist” or Boxing”). And the paradox begins: you start by lifting a foot, stepping out, slowly shifting your weight, and then very, very slowly letting your wrists fall away from you, out and up until they hang loose-heavy in from of you at shoulder height, then down to your sides again, until in this way your whole body is moving, expanding, contracting, turning, stepping, floating yet anchored, back and forth across the room, washed by invisible waves of air; yet you are still standing still, centered, right where you are, right there.
When I had my first lesson with Professor Cheng Man-ch’ing in New York eight years ago, I didn’t understand it, I thought “This is strange; usually I can get some sense of what things are about, I really can’t see what this Taiji is for, so I’ll stick with it until I do. Then I’ll quit.” I do understand it pretty well now, but I haven’t quit, at least not in the sense that I originally meant. Actually, I have quit, and now I’m, beginning to be able to do T’ai Chi.
Last year, just before he left for Taiwan, Professor Cheng called me over the his desk at Shr-Jung Center in New York (shr-jung, a term coined by Confucius, means “right timing”). He said to me that my practice had reached a significant point and that it was important for me to give it special attention during this period. I thanked him and said that I had been practicing more and thinking a great deal about it, but that there were still some obstinate habits and tensions that I couldn’t seem to cut through. He smiled at me sadly, then shook his head: “The Dao is not something you can try to do.” These words enabled me to move on.
Everyone who studies Taijiquan encounters such frustrations, which comprise the environment for progress. One continuing frustration is the realization of how inappropriately we use our own bodies. Unlike most creatures and things under the sun, adult humans seem to have lost an awareness of what the parts of their bodies are for, and insist on using one end of the beast to do the job best performed by the other end. Pianos, rocks, trees, wild animals, and young children are generally not plagued by this confusion; but at some point in growing up, people start to get funny ideas about how to get their bodies around in the world. In Taiji class you will begin to notice that you have confused your shoulders with your legs; that it’s your legs which get you across the room and that your shoulders might as well relax and enjoy the ride. Also, you will observe that when you raise your hand slowly to a position in front of your chest, arm gently rounded and palm facing in, that your hand looks and feels as if it’s holding onto something. But there’s nothing in your hand, so drop it! And then you might begin to notice you’re still holding onto your hand itself, as if it might go somewhere without you. Let go of it! It ain’t going nowhere.