This morning, as I did tai chi, I had an unexpected and not entirely unwelcome insight. I have to tell you, readers, that I don’t do a very good job with my qi gong exercises. This may be a revelation along the lines of what my teacher Mark said about his experiences with Benedictine monks: “The young ones think they’re holy and they’re not; the middle-aged ones think they’re not holy and they’re right; the old ones think they’re not holy and yet they are.” That is to say, when I began to do tai chi, and qi gong specifically, I thought I was OK at my starting warm-up exercises. Then, I sort of let them languish a bit as I made genuine and deliberate improvements to the tai chi form. When I discovered specific challenges with the qi gong forms, I fixed them. But by and large, I assumed I was doing them right, and that they’re easy.
I’m wrong. They’re not easy at all.
Today, I found a way to engage the core muscles on every single exercise in both Five Golden Coins and Eight Pieces of Silk. By core muscles, I mean, in general, five groups of muscles — the back and shoulders, the abdominals (particularly the… the flexors? … that attach the thighs and hips to the torso), the strip of muscles from armpit to hip (the obliques?), and the upper chest (primarily pectorals, but others too), and the glutes (you know where I mean). Deliberately and consciously engaging these muscle groups left me somewhat sweaty and gasping a little for breath, unexpectedly, at the end. An unexpectedly difficult workout.
And I think this is what’s been eluding me for a long time, which I’m beginning to figure out. When old teachers and masters, and guidebooks and manuals say, “such and such a tai chi exercise contains the whole of tai chi”, what they really mean is “you have to engage with the exercise,” and “you have to let this exercise challenge you,” and “You are your own worst enemy in this work — defeat yourself first.”
For a month now, for most of December, I’ve been eating off my usual ways, and not doing tai chi particularly well, and generally not working as hard at this work as I could do. And today was a reminder: if I want this work to really transform me, I have to do the hard work. I have to be the one who does the transformation. I have to engage with the exercises every day, in a way that challenges me and moves me forward. I do them OK, or well enough — but there are things about the way that I do them which are sloppy and ill-formed. And that has to change — if I want to be be changed by the work.
If I just want to keep doing the work and pretending it changes me, well… that part’s easy enough. It’s working the forms hard enough that they change me which is difficult.