Tai Chi Y2D302: The Social Commitment

I was talking with Andrew Carle last night, and he was talking about how he set up a MakerSpace at an educational conference a year ago. They did it in the hallway of the conference center, and immediately people put on their “vendor game faces” — don’t make eye contact, don’t take a flyer, don’t engage, don’t get into the room with them, certainly don’t participate.  It was discouraging, he said; so this year they’re moving their MakerSpace to a hotel room, and handing out flyers, and Tweeting the MakerSpace room number to conference attendees.  Showing up on an unknown hotel floor, at an unknown hotel room, in order to learn about Making in education, is a lot more of a social commitment.  I hope he’ll write about his experiences in more detail — I want to know more.

But the thought was on my mind about social commitment this morning.  I got up to do tai chi, and there was a bunch of obstacles in my path, unexpectedly.  The dining room table was completely unfolded, with all the leaves up, and chairs all around. The ceiling fan was on. There wasn’t much space, either horizontally or vertically, to perform tai chi.  It meant that I had to make a commitment to the work: move the chair, fold down the table leaves, turn off the ceiling fan, and so on.  I had to engage with the space before I could engage with my work.  There was a commitment to the work that involved breaking down the space so that I could work within it.  The room had to be set up before the work could continue.

And I’m reminded instantly of mise en place, or “mess in place”, which is a French culinary concept.  All of the tools and materials of cooking, be they spices or spaghetti, spoons or saucepans, has a proper place in the kitchen. Ideally, one should be able to walk into a kitchen, open the usual cabinets, find the ingredients, and cook a marvelous meal — one that you know by heart, that comes naturally to you, and that involves the ingredients and tools in your kitchen: no special trips to Williams-Sonoma, no improvising of a double-boiler with a couple of extra pans.  Just you, the kitchen you have, and the freshest ingredients you can bring to the table.

When I’m at home, of course, I have the mise en place of my own office for tai chi; and frankly no place else indoors feels quite as good as doing tai chi there.  But being able to commit to working in a space, or modifying that space to serve your current needs, is important. What need to be moved? What needs to be put back? How will this work sit with the hosts or fellow housemates?

And likewise, today, I’m thinking about the social commitment of this tai chi work.  Today is Day 302, which means I have sixty-four days left of work this year — I’ll finish my current cycle in early March.  By writing about my tai chi, I’m making a social commitment to continue doing it, and to continue to learn from it.  By putting the year and day number, I’m committing to a certain number of days of practice a year.  Am I going to continue this work?  I don’t know.  Yes, I think I will… but I’m in discernment about it.

And I’m experiencing this sensation that Andrew talked about, the “vendor game face”, that I’m offering this into a largely empty wilderness of conference spaces, and the few people who wander by aren’t making eye contact. Someone recently suggested that I turn off the registration requirement for comments, although I get SO much spam in the back channels, I’m reluctant to do that. But maybe that’s OK — I like that there’s a social commitment involved in buying into this work.  I appreciate that.  I like that you have to climb into an unknown elevator, go to a mysterious place, and make a social commitment.

Maybe you can help me move the furniture around.

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  1. I hereby make virtual eye contact. 🙂 Last summer our T’ai Chi instructor suddenly stopped lessons, and three of us who had been with her for over a year and a half decided to form a T’ai Chi “club,” to continue our studies with each other and no instructor. We’ve noticed with great interest how much more engaged we are, and have started to study the first 15 moves of the form to really examine it (we do Yang family short form). It’s both much more social, because now we interact with each other a lot more (helping each other), and also a lot less passive in that we do the work on a different level, we have to participate more instead of just follow along with a teacher. We’re more engaged because of the social aspect of it. We rely on each other more than we did when we had a teacher. And about once a month I relate something you’d written that week because it’s relevant to some concept we’re working on. So, although you apparently do your T’ai Chi alone, there’s an occasional ripple all the way to a group of three people in Wisconsin. Social.

    • Hi Lisa,

      Woo! That’s so exciting. I’m glad to be useful to another community. I’ve just learned that one of my nearby neighbors is a tai chi practitioner, as well, so maybe I’ll be working with someone else in the near future. In the meantime, congratulations to you and your partners — it’s great that you got a club going.

    • Last fall we took a field trip to a T’ai Chi club about 50 miles away and practiced with them one evening. They practice a different form, and we’d never seen anything like that. Although it seemed on the surface to be entirely different than our practice, we came home with a new way to look at our own work, and we’re better for it. In the beginning it’s imperative to have just one teacher. But at some point, it can be beneficial to work with someone else, at least for a day. For instance, we learned that newcomers to their group spend 8 weeks JUST ON FOOTWORK. We thought that was very cool and for us that’s evolved into going back to the very beginning and examining details MUCH more closely, rather than being satisfied with having all the moves in the correct order. There’s a different energy created in studying UNDER someone else, WITH someone else, and ALONE. At some point it’s good to understand the difference and necessity (or benefit) of each.

    • I agree with both the benefit and the necessity of working with and under others; but I think solitude has its own lessons to teach, too, as you say. I’m not sure I could spend eight weeks just on footwork — but I’m planning to be doing this for a while, so maybe it will happen.

    • Well, we were taken aback at starting with 8 weeks of only footwork! And we’re not sure any of us would have lasted 8 weeks of that! But they explained that footwork is really the basis, and if you can get the footwork down pat as a beginner, the rest will come relatively easily, and we did agree with that as one good way to learn. Since we missed that window of doing intensive footwork practice early in our study, we kind of evolved that into choosing to do a detailed study of each move in completeness, instead of merely making sure we could do every step in order and facing the correct direction. At this point in OUR study, we’re practicing once a week together for one and a half to two hours and the rest of the days alone, so we have the advantage of both. Our little group consists of a 70-something man with a hard martial arts background, a 50-something female and a 30-something female. So we all bring something very different and wonderful. I think if you’re going to do that kind of close STUDY, you MUST do it with someone else (going back to the social aspect). You need to have someone with whom you can ask questions and examine principles. We’re enjoying not having just one teacher anymore! Everyone has a different “reason” for doing the work, and that reason is also a moving target over time. I find your commitment to doing the work every day inspirational.

  2. As someone your follows your blog daily, I enjoy witnessing the progress of your process of doing a thing, measuring and iterating it. The TaiChi Project is daily practice and design thinking rolled together.

    There are different levels of engagement with the work we put out to the world. Your friend Andrew’s ‘vendor game face’ reveals those participants level of engagement. I and other’s follow your blog for different reasons and different level of engagement. The trick, or the thing to understand, is to observe the reactions and levels of engagement of the others that observe your work.

    • I appreciate the engagement of the people I know on this blog… I think it helps break us out of the ‘tradition’ of Facebook and Upworthy and Buzzfeed which has grown up in the last ten years.

  3. Interesting thoughts for a contest im planning to enter. Also i think akismet will still catch the spam even if you turn off registration reqmt. Wont catch abusive real people for the most part, if you get those.

    • I’ve not gotten too many abusives, but I can also turn off those comments, too, if it gets bad. Thanks for the suggestion.

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