Over the years, I have observed a few things about the difference between folks who succeed with tai chi (taiji) and the folks who don’t. In this context, I define success as both finding what we are looking for in the art, and also being open to experiencing benefits you did not expect. We might, for example, discover the calm and peaceful refuge we were hoping for in the practice, but also find that our moods are less labile and that our nagging back pain is gone. In addition to being a spectacular system of self-defense, tai chi’s benefits generally include a boosted immune system, improved sleep, greater strength and flexibility, and a calmer, clearer mind. It is also the ultimate exercise for the body’s muscular core.
The primary characteristic of the successful tai chi practitioner is the ability to make friends with bewilderment. That means to gradually learn words, terms, and concepts that are unfamiliar; to accept that for the first few months or so we won’t really have much of an idea of what’s going on. It also means shutting off any competitive or self-defeating tapes in our head; no worrying why the person next to us seems to be “getting it” so much more quickly than we do, no more applying pressure to ourselves to be where we thought we should be after a certain amount of time. It means being okay with having to think for a moment about which is our left foot or hand and which is our right. It means accepting that there is a reason why millions of people over thousands of years have engaged tai chi and the practices from which it derives, and to accept the teacher you have selected as a reasonable conduit of ancient and valuable information. It means bumbling and stumbling through basic coordination drills and choreography for a while before the real lessons about relaxation and mental state actually begin to take hold.
To do these things can be far more difficult than it sounds. Even if we are patient, the culture we live in has snowed us into thinking that Western science and technology rule, that fast living is good living, and that extreme exercise (indeed extreme behavior in general) is somehow sexy or cool. It has conditioned us to turn to so-called specialists and experts in health fields when something is not right rather than look inward to find hidden messages regarding lifestyle changes, personal habits, or priorities we take for granted, and change them so that we may grow and heal. More, our culture has conditioned us to expect immediate results, imbuing us with a (sometimes subliminal) sense of entitlement—the idea that because we paid for something we deserve it right away, we deserve it to unfold as expected, and without much of our own effort, too. These unfortunate consequences of our speed-and-greed world do not fit well with a long-term mind/body practice like tai chi, which emphasizes the journey over the destination and the process over the results.
Why should we accept a de-emphasis of results? The answer is simple. Being goal oriented requires that we know what our goals are. When we focus on a destination rather than a journey, we have to know precisely where we are going. But what if we don’t really know where we’re going? What if the destination we think is right is, in fact, off by a few thousand miles? What if we know a great deal less about what we need and what is—on a much more profound level than we can currently comprehend—actually good for us? Proceeding with too narrow focus may, in fact, take us where we think we wanted to go, but then we may discover, as we so often do, that we’re not any happier, healthier, self-actualized, or fulfilled than we were before we achieved the goal we set.
Tai chi practice dispenses with all such assumptions and models. It reorients us completely. It will, given time, reset our values and priorities to such an extent that our friends and family will find us profoundly changed, and we will find ourselves to have greatly grown. This is a path to great equilibrium and power, and like all things that are hard won, it requires first and foremost that we relinquish our judgments and control our impulses. If we can, we will reap unimaginable treasures. If we can’t, tai chi is not for us.