On the way downstairs to do tai chi this morning, I slipped on the stair treads and bounced down the last four stairs. I kept upright, I didn’t bang my head on anything, and I had a hand on the stair rail the whole way down. It was scary that I couldn’t get any traction or right myself. But at the same time I had a sense that I wows going to reach the bottom of the stairs alive and unharmed. It was frightening, but also joyful. It made me feel alive.
There’s this appropriate balance between routine and surprise. We make discoveries when the routine breaks. As Isaac Asimov observed, the most important words in science are not “Eureka!” (I have found it!), but “that’s funny…. what’s going on here?” It’s the mystery, the enigma, the surprise, which catches our attention and brings us back into living awareness of the moment.
That little adventure on the stairs made my first movements — the druidic prayer, and the two qi gong forms — these elegant flows of routine, awakened to their real potential by that slip on the stairs. The surprise and shock of that moment helped wake me up to the potential for life-changing routine. During the first movement of Five Golden Coins, which is called Join Heaven and Earth, I found the raw moment of pause between the hand rising and the hand falling. As my hands faced each other in front of my dan tien, I felt a sphere of chi form in the cup or empty sphere of my hands, and felt the potential of that force rising as I began to move it around, first up and then down. The sensation faded before I even started the tai chi form, but it was awake and alive all through the two qi gong forms (and isn’t it about time to start learning a third, maybe Standing Bear or a staff form?)
I remember once, when I went to see my tai chi teacher after a long absence, he said, “We’ve been working on wrist locks lately, in conjunction with search center. Do you want to see?” I consented, and we entered the competitive posture of Push Hands. We went through the cycles of movement common to push-hands, and then boom. He did his fancy thing with the wrist-lock and the search center, and I was flat on my back on the grass. Boom. I was so surprised, and delighted, that I started laughing. Hard. My tai chi teacher was not a little man, but he didn’t weigh as much as I did. And yet, in a moment, he’d completely overcome my connection with gravity. He was able to knock me to the ground with a mild push and a wrist lock. And I kept laughing.
After a moment, bemused, my teacher helped me to my feet. “The laugher is good,” he said, or words to that effect. “It’s hard to think about fighting you when you’re so amused.” And so it was today. When I didn’t kill myself on the stairs, I had a great tai chi experience — because the joy of surprise often wakes us to the genuine delights of what can often seem like ordinary routine.