WHY I DO TAI CHI
Before going to Vietnam in 1968 I lived in a comfortable, middle class home in the San Fernando Valley just north of Los Angeles. My mother, father, sister, brother and I lived a seemingly normal life in what appeared to be a relatively civilized community. My high school sweetheart and I were engaged. Violence played almost no part in my life although there would be an occasional fight between teenage boys. Once or twice someone got cut or stabbed. We had lived through the Watts riots. Before moving to Van Nuys we lived in South Central Los Angeles where avoiding being picked on had become a way of life for me. None of this prepared me for what was coming.
The first thing I saw after landing in Vietnam was row upon row of metal coffins waiting to get shipped back to the “World.” That’s how bizarre things were. The United States was referred to as the “World.” At first the people looked the same, but something was different. Now I realize what that was. The veneer of civilization had been removed. I was living with men whose humanity had been stripped away, and I was on my way to becoming one of them. The rules I had grown up with were gone.
We could now do things unimaginable back in the “World.” Not just the obvious killing, maiming, and torture, but other simple things. Things like sitting in the back of a truck going by an old woman on a bike and pulling off the hat which was tied around her neck. Most of us laughed when this caused her to be pulled off her bike. Simple things like watching a room full of G.I.s at an auction bidding for the chance to have sex with a 12 or 13-year old virgin. Simple things like sitting in an opium den, enlisted men and officers together. We lived in a culture of violence and drugs. Almost everyone I knew was either stoned or drunk most of the time. Young women were hung by their feet with their throats slit. Babies had their heads pulled off in front of their mothers who were suspected of being Viet Cong. Suicides, murder, rape and mayhem committed by regular people whose humanity had been stripped. Normal people were doing monstrous things.
This was the sea in which we swam and I had become unglued. After seven months of this I had what I now know was a nervous breakdown. A guy whose name I don’t even remember lived in my tent. On New Year’s Day 1969, he blew his head apart with an M16. After that I wandered around for days crying. There was no comfort to be had. I went to the First Sergeant and asked him for help. He hated me, told me so, and said I would live or die there. After that I never drew a sober breath. I hardened myself and made it through. Six months later I went home.
If you think the change from veneered civilization to chaos was difficult, putting the veneer back on was impossible. Nothing made sense. While I was in the Army my parents divorced. Ten days after getting home from Vietnam I was married. The changes were coming fast and I couldn’t ride them. I couldn’t keep a job. I would blow up at the smallest provocation. I was an abscess ready to explode, tender to the slightest touch. I knew I was in trouble. Within three months after getting discharged from the Army I went to the VA, but they didn’t have a clue. One day my brother told me that I should study Tai Chi, that it might help me. I said, “How can that help? Isn’t it only a stretching exercise?” That was in 1970.
“Tai Chi comes from Wu Chi and is the mother of ying and yang.” Order comes from chaos. Tai Chi is not a stretching exercise. Tai Chi is a realization of a philosophical concept, an understanding of the world and our relationship to it. It is an internal martial art meaning it comes from inside the Chinese mind. It is a Chinese way of thinking. In a word, it is about change. Things are always changing — in fact, the only constant is change. Nothing lasts forever. Some aspects of change are predictable. Ying will be yang and yang will be ying. When taken to the extreme, ying and yang each become the other.
I knew none of this when I started learning the form. I read the classics, practiced every day, and I knew only one thing: I started feeling calmer after I practiced. By listening to my breath and feeling my body, I gradually, very gradually, started to feel how I had encased myself behind a wall of tension in order to protect myself. Not only was my body locked up, but I also came to realize that the same was true for my mind. Both body and mind were so frozen in a protective mode that my spirit could not express itself.
I was told over and over again to relax, to let go. When I could do this just a little, I started to feel and the first things I felt were fear and anger. I was able to keep these feelings in check, but often I was overwhelmed by fear and anger.
Little by little I was able to let go. I started re-experiencing some of the traumatic events of that year in Vietnam. One day while doing standing meditation, my attention was drawn to the little finger of my right hand. Tam Gibbs, my teacher, had shown me how I was holding tension there. While standing all of a sudden I was back in Da Nang where, while rebuilding a bunker that had been destroyed the night before, I cut my finger to the bone. I walked to the dispensary and had it sewn. Just as the medic was finishing a helicopter filled with wounded landed and stretchers were brought in. Guys were screaming, moaning, bleeding, and dying, and there I was with a cut finger. I walked out in what seemed at the time in slow motion, past all of this. I wanted to run but was afraid, embarrassed. I felt guilty. I wanted to cry, but couldn’t.
This memory came and left in an instant, and I was overwhelmed with the feelings I had at that time but could not experience. I then cried and it felt good. At the same time I felt a release of tension not only in my finger, but also all the way up my arm and my chest and right into my heart. My finger, arm and heart started to let go of their holding of those blocked emotions. I shared this with Tam and he smiled at me. He held me with his eyes and I felt his deep love. He embraced me in my suffering without resistance or letting go. He is very important to me and I miss him.
This was the first time I realized that physical trauma also brought mental and emotional trauma. Holding in the body brought holding in the heart and mind. I had heard this before, but this was my first experience of it. After this happened I was more open to these experiences. I continued to pay attention to my habitual mental and physical pain and that awareness gave me a way to start letting them go. While moving through the postures or just standing in them, my head top suspended, sacrum sinking, I could start to release my old physical habits. As difficult as that was, releasing my mind was even more so. The simple act of sinking my mind to the ‘tan tien’ was most difficult. I was anxious and distracted. Little by little I am able to release and let go. Fear and anger are diminishing and as they recede, I find a deep sadness which now, for the first time, I can embrace.
I’m often asked about the spirit in Tai Chi. Due to my own limitations, there are many aspects of this question I am unprepared to discuss. There is one thing, however, that I can say. By practicing Tai Chi (including push hands) I am able to relax my ego and allow my true nature to surface and express itself. When I returned from Vietnam, I was very fragile, seemingly strong on the outside, but weak on the inside — just the opposite of a Tai Chi player. Instead of steel contained in cotton, I was cotton (really more like mush) encased in steel. I strengthened my ego trying to conceal my essential weakness.
Just as our government had failed our country, I also had failed myself. I had allowed myself to be used in an inhuman way for an immoral purpose. I was very aware of this. I went into the Army because I was unable to stand up for myself. I knew what I was doing was wrong but did not have the courage to do what was right. I was weak and fell into the hands of an evil master. When I returned from Vietnam in 1969, the culture, my people, my family, were all furious.
This was a spiritual crisis. In order to practice push hands we must “invest in loss.” For one who was as fragile as I was, this was scary. But with Tam’s not always gentle guidance, I began. He told us repeatedly to let go, let others push us, and relax our egos. I wanted to relax but couldn’t. My classmates and I persisted and gradually I began receiving some of their pushes. Seven days a week I practiced push hands. My external strength, my over-protected ego, started to relax. I was feeling less separated from my classmates. Their well-being started to become mine, just as my progress helped them. We wanted to improve and we had to work cooperatively.
This cooperative practice gradually helped me look at the world differently. Never were things more separate than when I was in Vietnam. We were right, they were wrong. We were human, they were gooks. Now I was in a community who depended on each other for growth and there were no enemies. There were no others. There were just energy exchanges. “You give me a little, then I will give some back to you.” This way of being leaked out of the practice hall and affected my interactions in the world. The softening of my ego allowed me to feel connection to a larger whole. I was no longer separate from humanity.
“Tai Chi comes from Wu Chi and is the mother of ying and yang.” Order comes from chaos. Before studying Tai Chi, my mind, body, and spirit were locked together, an undifferentiated mass. I was like a piece of plywood: Stand me up and the slightest breeze would knock me over. Now, after 40 years of practice, things are different. In standing, the heavy sinks down and light floats to the top. When I move forward, not only does my body move forward, but the “stuff” of my body also moves forward. When I move back, the inner and outer coordinate. While I am not yet like a piece of cloth hanging on a line, it takes more than a small breeze to uproot me. Life’s changes come, sometimes faster than I like, but that is not up to me. I am able to ride them, adapting to situations as they occur. I am now able to let things run their course. I hold on less and don’t try to control my environment. It’s okay to let go.