Listening to the Wind: On Internal Practice

Tai Chi secretsAbout a week ago I asked my Tai Chi class if they ever get bored doing the form. They unanimously answered “No,” their explanation being that the form always provides new material to concentrate on, things to master.

This suggests that the act of repetition can be either boring or freeing, and leads me to one  of my favorite topics: the constant dialogue between the internal and the external. This shows itself in practice, the threat of untutored and thoughtless redundancy chasing away the liveliness of repeated mastery.

The issue centers on spontaneity, a sure antidote for boredom. I begin on the side  of normal practice, the rehearsed routines, the definitely non-spontaneous forms.  In this formative environment students are taught to see dichotomy as adversity, “that move can’t be right both ways.” What they don’t understand is that the structure of the basics and the surprises of the spontaneous are not enemies,  causing chaos but two sides of the same magnificent statue  complementing each other.

When you think about it, the Yin and Yang of practice lies in that specialized pair: Precision and Expression.  This very human skill depends on talents un-duplicatable outside that unique genius of humanity. the world of human genius.  Imagine a great actor on stage, performing the well-rehearsed soliloquy from Hamlet,  practiced it until it fell trippingly off the tongue. He knows every inflection of that soliloquy. Every nuance is properly pitched and timed; even changes of pacing or breathing that might appear spontaneous, augment an effect. Yet that same actor, while intoning and keeping track of his speech externally for the audience, is also following an invisible chalk line he could abandon at any moment. Even as he performs, he senses ideas, interpretations and surprises all through the path of his speech. In this case spontaneity is ready to pop out and change things at an instants notice. The temptation is there every second and giving in may result in mistakes, or brilliance.

And how tempting it is, to take Will Shakespeare’s tired old words and throw in some of your new angles on the monologue. But this is Shakespeare’s spontaneity, you have to create your own. And that can only be based on your personal strong acquisition of an unchanging foundation.  Most spontaneous acts worth the name blossom only from practice, effort and concentration. In that way the well-known and well-rehearsed are like a springboard, giving us more height in the jump that will end…

…who knows where?

When another writer, the much-maligned Gertrude Stein, wrote the line “A rose is a rose is a rose,” she wasn’t trying to be funny (although she was that, too). She was trying to do the exact opposite of that trick where you say one word over and over again until it becomes a blur of meaningless gibberish. Instead, she was acknowledging how stale language or anything else can become if we do not act as though learning and refining are important aspects of life. in Stein’s case she was attempting to bring the reader’s face right up to the word until what was behind the word—namely, the rose—resurfaced as itself and not a symbol.

The similarity between literary spontaneity and physical spontaneity is closer than one might guess. Recording the truth, writing the truth, and seeking the truth in martial activity are so closely linked that we remind ourselves every time we drape open palm around fist: there they are even at the level of a salutation: the knowledge and study of the scholar and the action and bravery of the soldier.

Next time you do a form, stop at some arbitrary instant, some specific pose, and monitor the potential energy invisible but present at each moment. The deeper the foundation the higher the building.

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One Response to “Listening to the Wind: On Internal Practice”

  1. Jeff says:

    Indeed, that has been my experience. I think this happens at multiple levels. When you are first learning a form and the next move is still a mystery, and your mind is fully occupied working out the link and flow, you experience moments of discovery – aha! so that’s how it goes, now it makes sense. That’s what makes martial arts so exciting when you first begin, and it is a state we endeavor to recapture – Shoshin: Beginner’s Mind – to keep it fresh.
    Then you repeat it for years until you could do it in your sleep, time slows down, and in the prolonged moments of transition a thousand possibilities open – aha, so it could also work like this, or that, or this and that. Mushin – no mind.

    But also, when you teach, the same thing can happen. When trying to show someone how to move, I discover things about the movement that I never knew. This is especially true when teaching children. You often have to break things down to their elemental components, and in so doing, you make discoveries you never expected.

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