Grounding, centering. These are the core elements of many hidden practices, and not everyone explains what they mean by them. Yet to find the calm place in tai chi is to find oneself rooted in earth. Four tai chi forms after two qi gong forms.
My tai chi practice today consisted of rooting myself. There’s a practice called the Three Nails that I learned about from my tai chi teacher, where one imagines three large iron spikes descending into the earth from the bottom of one’s foot. One nail is attached to the bottom of the big toe. One is attached to the ball of the foot. And one is attached to the heel. When these three nails are properly imagined and sunk into the earth, it is very difficult to move the practitioner at all. And a practitioner leaves these footfalls behind at risk — to step, and give up this rootedness on on foot is risky. To step twice is really challenging.
Although it’s incredibly difficult, the first instinct should be to step back. To wait. To see what comes next. This is difficult when one is surprised, upset, angry. But the step back is not a prelude to stepping forward, I think. It’s a step backward which is its own thing. It has its own identity. In fact, that step back should be thorough and complete. If you were standing on a rug, your feet should leave imprints in the carpet warp like furniture which has been in the same place for many years, pressing down with its own weight as well as the weight of all those who have sat on it. Those footprints you leave should become deep. This isn’t to say this is easy.
But that’s what it means to be rooted to earth. Think about the way that a chair sits on a carpet, and be rooted like that. Or think of the three nails, and be rooted like that. Now, think of your three nails like three living roots, extending down into the ground. Their tendrils wrap around boulders so tightly that the boulders break into stones, and the stones into rocks, and the rocks into pebbles, and the pebbles into sand. Yet the same tree draws nourishment from the earth, with tremendous force, moving very littler but always with fibrous tendrils wrapped around allegedly unmovable things, like mountains. A field of grass holds back the flood; a hillside of trees will not move an inch in a century. Trees and plants have a wisdom about these things that us faster-moving animals simply do not have.
But that tree moves a great deal, as I must move, above the foot or the ankle. Solidity upon the ground, with energy reaching down into the ground, as much weight below as above: that is the goal, it seems, though rarely achieved. Above the ground, dynamic movement, flowing within the compass of your limbs and your range of movement, up and down, out and over, back and forth and side to side. Stability is the root of flexibility, and those are my thoughts on earth this morning.