Warring states

I recently read Hai, the final story in Yan Ge’s collection “Elsewhere”. It’s a visceral depiction of the vicious politics of Confucius and his successors. Hai refers to the practice of executing someone by chopping off their flesh, and mincing them alive. Then feeding it to their father as punishment.

Both history and myself are a bit vague on the world inhabited by Confucius, Lao-Tzu and Zhuangzi. It was a time of many states warring against each other, but bound by a common, literate culture (the “Xia”). “Troubled times inspired a spirit of enquiry and a predisposition towards novel solutions” (China: A History, John Keay). People could move around the states, looking for success. Unsuccessfully, in Confucius’s case, at least in his lifetime. This was the world of “personal detachment, emotional vacuity, various physical disciplines and a back-to-nature primitivism” (ibid) that has become the grounding for various modern practices. Not least Tai Chi, which in turn becomes a grounding for how I go about my daily life 2500 years later.

Putting aside the relative modernity of many of the “traditional” martial arts, this is at least the history that’s in mind when we put ourselves through the grind of practice. And it wasn’t very peaceful. It’s fair to say the wisdom was born from traumatic times, albeit themselves looking back to a semi-mythical history, whether the earlier days of the Zhou dynasty, or before. That turmoil was politically complex and sophisticated.

What’s prompted these thoughts? At least, it’s wanting not to pretend that there were other times when these arts were easier, when life was simpler. It’s recognising that, despite the modern world of “knowledge workers”, where the brain is wrung out daily, there was probably a fair amount on most people’s minds in ancient China. And perhaps, what’s not often admitted by the arts (but is by observers), they are mostly available as a luxury to the privileged. Itinerants would surely have toured the states to make their name, to gain favour and sponsorship, from those with power. And still, time and training is costly. Access to quality training is rare. Discernment is essential. Life is messy and unforgiving.

This all boils down, for me, to recognition and reassurance – which is perhaps why we look to history in the first place – to see what continues to be true, and at the same time to clear away any fog of idealised romance.


written in May, posted on instagram, transferred over here.

This week I travelled to London and presented to a crowd of colleagues.

Talking to groups has always triggered a deep-rooted physical reaction. Nerves, sickness, utter fear. Looming for the week, then building through the day. How can I turn from seated observer to the one up there? Holding their attention, pretending to speak naturally, as if there is no difference?

It went ok. In one way, it went well. I know the theories. I’ve read Amy Cuddy’s Presence, and van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score. They describe the body in these circumstances, and the negative feedback loop with the mind. But the knowledge doesn’t, in itself, help. If you’re in the mind, you’re in the mind, and you’ll spin the body and its complex systems into a soup of self-destruction.

So what did go well? I felt the nerves, in the week, when I woke, through the day. But I also noticed the arising habitual thoughts. I stepped back from them, let my mind sink into my body. Standing in the tiny hotel room, I did my stretching, then my standard 20 minutes of wuji. Then a bit of cloud hands. All morning I settled back into body tissues, keeping the gentle stretch from the top of the head that’s fundamental to tai chi. Not obsessively so – but even while speaking with people, I was clocking the way tension built up, in shoulders or sides, and letting it go.

And the talk went ok. It didn’t set the room on fire, but that’s all right – my victory was staying in myself, just about. I stayed in the room. It’s a weird sort of achievement – a subtraction – removing those layers that we add and inhabit. Leaving just a person in a room talking to other people for a bit. Which isn’t much – but at the time, it was everything.

So, you’ve decided to write about Tai Chi

You know that’s pointless, right? Right? Why write?

There’s no way in, to get in from the jiggery pokery of words. There’s no way out, when you’re in, to tell the others of this world what it’s about.

Only, the words play their part, they need to. Tangible example, feeling the structure, even seeing it, is what really matters. To teach, words come into the mix. I’m not teacihng, or preaching, Each to his own, so what is happening here? Maybe only writing, as an emanation, a symptom of practice. A hymn to the journey. Notes while travelling.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried reading a guidebook before visiting a city. It is very hard work. And then, when you’re there, there’s not that much time. Perhaps you find the relevant passages to digest what you’ve seen, and find new angles, as you begin to work out what’s where. And then, having been, to understand and internalise what you’ve seen.

Maybe this is that. Maybe this is not.