I’m sitting here in the post-tai chi calmness and bliss, listening to a video from Gordon of Nicholas Nassim Taleb, where he discusses anti-fragility — the way that systems benefit from occasional shocks. He’s talking about the way that we, as humans, benefit from experiences that help us deal with and learn from stress. He says, if you let systems develop on their own, they tend to be stronger; if you design them top-down, you’re basically creating a fragile model that will collapse under the first unexpected shock. The larger systems know much more than you do. And this is one of the things I like about my new grading system. It’s not top-down; it’s intended to have flexibility, rather than the rigid top-down system imposed by my digital grade book programs that I used (and found frustrating) for years.
When I got out of bed this morning, the house was cold. Here I was, in my underwear, wandering around a cold house, getting ready to do tai chi, and shivering a little. Yet it turns out that cold is beneficial for the body. I may not like it much, but cold — the larger system — helps wake up my body to the day. When I started moving, I started heating up. My body let me know — with little twinges here and there — where I needed to take it easy and where I could ramp up my practice. Doing tai chi daily has really been attuning me to the larger system that is my body. And really, it’s also accustomed me to some of the larger shocks, like “wow, the house is cold today!” The temperature of the house hasn’t changed, and yet right now I’m warm and comfortable, even though I’m dressed exactly the same now as when I got out of bed. It’s not the larger system that’s changed; it’s me that has adapted to find its appropriate place in the system.
This is not to say that I always want to be a cog in the machine, or that there aren’t places to move against the system as it presently stands. But there is a genuine benefit to being adaptable enough to see a niche, and occupy it, and then move out again when it no longer suits you. My tai chi teacher once told a story about a qi gong master who was in an elevator in Hong Kong, when some bank robbers came into the elevator with guns drawn (they’d just robbed a specialty branch office for ultra-private clients or something, on an upper floor). I always imagine this tai chi master to be William C.C. Chen, but it’s possibly someone else. And realizing these men posed a threat, the master simply faded into the background. In an elevator. In a moment the robbers seemed comfortable enough that they put away their guns, and took off their masks, and joked with one another about how successful they had been, without ever noticing that an old man was in the car with them. When the elevator reached ground level, the master was able to walk out of the elevator, and point out the robbers to the security crew waiting for them, and leave. He was fully embedded in the system: he wasn’t stopped as a witness, wasn’t fingered as part of the robbers’ gang, and wasn’t at risk from the robbers themselves. In fact, he was rather like Agent Smith from The Matrix — a perfectly ordinary human being to all appearances, until he needed to be an agent of the Vast Karmic Forces That Command The Universe. And then he kicked butt in the most awesome way possible, without ever once expending his own energy more than he needed to.
So, simply deciding to be warm and happy in an otherwise-cold house isn’t QUITE in the same category as stopping bank robbers. But it’s pretty awesome nonetheless.