T'ai Chi as a Path of Wisdomby Linda Myoki Lehrhaupt
Unlike most t'ai chi books, which focus strictly on how to do the t'ai chi forms, T'ai Chi as a Path of Wisdom presents a personal, practical view of this intriguing martial art. Lehrhaupt shares illuminating stories from her own life and the lives of her students that show how t'ai chi can be a vehicle for profound self-discovery and spiritual growth.
In learning to master each body posture, t'ai chi students often confront self-doubt, frustration, and the desire to compete and compare themselves to others—problems that also arise in daily life. Lehrhaupt shows how these and other obstacles provide valuable opportunities to deepen awareness and recognize the striking continuities between practice and everyday life.
Each section of the book includes practical exercises designed to enhance students' understanding of t'ai chi movements, and a helpful appendix answers many frequently asked questions about t'ai chi training such as how to find a teacher and how to balance practice with family life. Full of useful insights and guidance, T'ai Chi as a Path of Wisdom will be a valuable companion for all students of this increasingly popular martial art.
"This exquisitely written book is a paean to this Taoist practice as a path to wisdom."— Spirituality & Health
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Read an Excerpt
In this book I explore t'ai chi as a meditation practice and a path of wisdom and relate what we can learn about ourselves, others, and life itself when we study t'ai chi.
Almost everyone who practices t'ai chi for a period of time will tell you that what began as a weekly class in a movement exercise became a study in living and personal growth. T'ai chi is a path of wisdom meditation, but it is also a path with heart. As we walk this path we open our heart—to ourselves first and,
then, like ripples spreading in a still pond, to everything and everyone around us. Tears sometimes mark the moments of great release and understanding and,
ultimately, deep awakening. I believe that every moment of training is an opportunity to open, deepen, stretch, and grow. And at the core is a quiet voice that continually asks: "What is the heart of practice?"
I began t'ai chi in 1978, it was the most difficult period of my life. Six months earlier I had given birth to my daughter, Taya, in a cesarean procedure with complications that left me exhausted for a long time afterward. Three months later my mother died, after living with breast cancer for eight years.
Shortly afterward I left a secure and well-paying job to go on a three-month journey across America in a VW camping bus with my husband, Geoff, and Taya.
Following the trip Geoff and I separated after twelve years of marriage. I
settled down in a tiny apartment in New York, where my daughter slept in a windowed closet. I was twenty-nine years old, a single mother, and—along with my brother—the caretaker of a senile, elderly father. I didn't know it then but t'ai chi would touch every part of my life: it trained my body, opened my mind, and softened my heart. In fact, it saved my life.
1979 I began to study chi kung. What drew me to my first class was not the words
on the announcement, because I had no idea what
but the word
written beneath. I was drawn to that first class as if the strongest force in the world were pulling me. From that point on, my chi kung and t'ai chi training intertwined. While people usually study either t'ai chi or chi kung, I have studied both almost from the beginning. For me the differences between the two are more about nuances and points of emphasis. Like the Buddhist metaphor of
Indra's net, t'ai chi and chi kung are interrelated and yet each is unique.
Six months after starting chi kung, I attended my first introductory class in Zen meditation. My practice intensified over the years until, first, I received lay ordination, or jukai, in 1988, and then was ordained as a Zen priest in 1992.
My sitting practice is the bedrock of my life and the ground from which many of the insights and perspectives in this book flow.
One of the reasons I initially began Zen practice was that I wanted to understand what the meditation in t'ai chi and chi kung was all about. As time wore on and my practice matured, I gave up trying to understand or figure things out and just continued my training. At the beginning I was searching; later my sitting practice prepared me to stop looking and just try to stay more open and receptive. From this well of not-knowing and not-planning, life happens. It is the same source that nourishes our t'ai chi once we learn to stop building dams and just let the river flow.
The only island of peace in my life in those early days was the time each day that
I practiced t'ai chi. In those moments of quiet standing before beginning the sequence of movements that are the t'ai chi form something settled in me. My sense of struggle that came from caring for a young baby and an old man turned into a bright alertness. T'ai chi didn't make my problems go away, but it created a caring space in my life to which I could return each day to nourish my spirit and tend to my overworked body. T'ai chi gave me the tools to look at my life not as a desert but as a garden that I could cultivate; it gave me energy, patience, and a sense of timing.
1983 I moved to Germany, married again, and began to teach t'ai chi and chi kung. My students come from all walks of life and range in age from fifteen to seventy-nine. And while the reasons they begin training are very different, the reason they stay is always the same: through these arts they learn about themselves in a deep and challenging way. They come to appreciate their life as an opportunity to learn, grow, and flourish.
To appreciate our life means to be able to welcome both the storms and the gentle breezes of everyday life as part of living a life that matters. It means to explore deeply the idea of t'ai chi as a lifelong practice. Often beginning students misunderstand what this means. They think it refers to mastering the different t'ai chi forms or perfecting the push hands technique. But as the stories in this book illustrate, t'ai chi has nothing to do with perfecting technique. It has nothing to do with mastering oneself, if by that we mean controlling our feelings or thoughts. It is, rather, the practice of the student who, frustrated and angry at not getting "it," starts to walk out the door but then returns to her training place and vows to try once more.
Being able to say "I'll try again" is one of the deepest expressions of faith in oneself.
When we begin learning the t'ai chi form, one of the first things we come up against is our desire to learn quickly, effortlessly, and perfectly. As every beginning student soon finds out, however, it takes time, effort, and patience to learn t'ai chi. It asks us to dedicate a part of our day to ourselves, to practice even when we don't want to. It asks us to keep going, even when it looks like we're going nowhere. Most students who quit t'ai chi after studying for a short time do so not because t'ai chi is difficult to learn but because their expectations are not satisfied quickly enough. They leave because they do not want to face disappointment. Not wanting to feel the pain of disappointment is often what holds us back from trying our best. We are afraid to put our whole heart into something because we are afraid of breaking our heart. This is as true of studying t'ai chi as it is of anything in life.
In fact, learning t'ai chi is really a process of learning how to learn. This process is based on the understanding that what we discover about ourselves is just as important as simply performing a t'ai chi move correctly, if not more so. Learning how to learn includes developing the capacity to become intimate with our frustration and self-doubt. We see that what seemed like an obstacle can become an opportunity and, though small, can change our life entirely.
People often ask: "What are the benefits of learning t'ai chi?" When the student is a beginner, it is difficult to answer this question in a deep way.
In fact, most prospective students usually know what they want: stress reduction, physical exercise, correction of alignment or posture problems, a form of self-defense, instruction in a Taoist art; these are among the most common reasons. But the hidden treasure of t'ai chi is not something that many students are seeking to begin with. To find this treasure asks nothing short of commitment, engagement, discipline, and a willingness to keep going, even when the goal seems far away and obscured. However, as students train, they learn that each class offers an opportunity to search in a very practical way for all the parts of themselves that are blocked, to look at their preconceptions and face their reactions in a new way. That is at the heart of what it means to practice t'ai chi.
Meet the Author
Linda Myoki Lehrhaupt, Ph.D., has taught t'ai chi and chi kung since 1982. An ordained Zen priest, she leads workshops throughout Europe and is the cofounder, along with her husband, of La Martinie, a center in the Dordogne, France, where retreats in Zen meditation and meditative arts take place.
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