1: "I shut my eyes in order to see"
Paul Gauguin whilst performing Grasp the Sparrows Tail
One of the most beautiful and practical exercises with a partner is this routine in which one person adheres to another, follows or sticks to another person.
Aim: Not to hold on but instead to "feel" the direction, tension, breath, angle of movement and pace through softness and yielding.
Rules: Minimal finger-tip contact and keep your eyes closed in order to see.
2:"Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens"
Jimi Hendrix whilst pondering over which strings not to bite.
We talk a lot about listening energy in Tai Chi, and therein lies the problem.
PROBLEM: Talking rather than listening.
When introducing the art, instructors explain it away, demonstrate the minutiae of the move until every molecular change has been annotated and there are no longer any spaces between all those words to squeeze in a question, to draw a breath or even to pause and wonder why.
AIM: Less agendas, more blank slates and more string biting please.
3:If you hold on tight you will lose your grip.
Lao Tzu whilst searching for wifi cover.
You can't keep a fist tight for long before it returns to an open hand.
A frown eventually dissolves, a shoulder drops after being hunched all day.
Clouds gather, rain falls and then the sun returns.
One day you have good cover, then the next you can't pick up a signal.
The wise one works alongside the direction of nature and not against it.
4:It is not our abilities that show us who we really are, but our choices.
Professor Albus Dumbledore before issuing wands.
Demonstrating a complex or advanced technique isn't always the right thing. Don't stay on the stage.
If you want to help someone understand, then learn to step back, forget the theatricals.
Choosing to engage rather than to impress may just be the better choice when new students are looking for someone to learn from.
5:It's not where we get it from, it's who we give it to that matters
Jean Luc Godard upon being told the idea wasn't his (Whilst eating a scone and jam)
Who judges a book on the cover alone?
Is it factually correct but uses a really bad font, single spacing, and is devoid of even a single picture?
Does it send you to sleep, does it come with crayons? Do you have to colour it in?
Will it tempt you to underline a phrase or scratch it out?
Will it make you laugh or cry?
Choose your method of learning accordingly.
The solution lies not only in what is conveyed, but how.
HISTORY, BUTTER & THE WORDS OF OTHERS.
Ever wondered about the history of the martial arts if he greatest teachers of all time could talk to us now?
Blending fact, fiction, a little butter and lots of subjective history this book fills in all the gaps your history teacher left out.
Sample or get a copy on Amazon here or as part of the Tai Chi Book Bonanza here.
Curious to learn the art? Get your Free Tai Chi Starters Pack here.
New students to Tai Chi often tell me that they find themselves in a Catch-22 situation when they seek clear and direct answers about Tai Chi. What is the problem new students encounter and what can they do to counter the vague answers they often get? How much is this the responsibility of the school or the teacher? Read on and discover the top 5 tips for new students starting a Tai Chi class.
For most new students the different names and variations between styles are at best academic and at worst dogmatic. When students ask about styles they are looking for simple answers. Instead they get something like this:
"In our Tai Chi school we practice the Modern 57 Big-Small, Yang-Chen, Traditional but Modern Style. This is characterised by our practice of the 8 Pieces of Brocade/Bit-Coin Farmers-Set of Animal Play Qigong. As for weapons, we train in the broad-narrow-sabre wooden 32 Beijing nunchaku. And as regards our illustrious Teacher, you should know he was taught by the top student of the last teacher who learnt from the inner-temple disciple from the final generation of the last descendent of the eldest cousin of the man who once lived next door to the Soup Stall that sold outside the Shaolin temple"...and so it goes on.
For the certain teachers, these answers are perfectly clear, but for new students such details make as much sense as a holiday greeting in Vulcan. New students want to be reassured and told about the benefits they can expect and how the classes are conducted. It’s very simple really, but few schools offer such clarity. So what can a new student do to find out this information if all they get are messages in Vulcan?
First up is to understand that some Tai Chi teachers do like to talk about themselves. You will find this out pretty quickly if you meet one, and they can be spotted by their tendency to adopt other names than that which appears on their birth certificate: Bob or Fred my be scratched out and replaced with Sifu Simon or Guru-Gary. This is a big give-a-way and should send warning shots across your bough. Of course, they may or may not call themselves gurus, some plumb for the more humble title of “master” or equivalent. But try not to get distracted by titles. You can always undermine such nonsense by refusing to acknowledge them. For example, when in a doctors surgery, instead of calling him/her Doctor, try calling him/her by their first name. Say “Well, Bertrand, I’d still like to show you my boil….” and see how they react. If they go all wobbly and point to their name plate on the desk and insist on the use of Doctor, you can rest assured you have found a genuine guru and someone who’s sense of themselves is truly grounded in superficialities.
If your suspicions have been aroused by the adoption a title, you can move on to asking a question about your training. If the answer starts off fine by referring to your question but quickly reverts to an anecdote about his/her childhood or a demonstration of a lethal neck hold, this may be another warning. S/he will of course try to convince you that such techniques are essential to understanding Tai Chi, but truth is most of the time they just like showing their favourite moves as this brings the subject back to themselves.
3. WISE SKILLS
If the subject has moved on to skills, then you can try the following two-prong approach to discover what sort of teacher you are dealing with. Ask for a demonstration of a Form posture - a complicated one such as Snake Creeps Through Grass. See if it is demonstrated to you as you might hope to learn it during your first few months of training - or - see if it is demonstrated to you as though s/he was entering a World Tai Chi Form competition and you were a judge. If the former, then good news! S/he is doing their best to adapt and refine their response to your level and expectations. If the latter however, they are just showing off and now might be a good time to back out the door before you sign anything.
If unsure, you could always try the second approach which consists in asking for a little wisdom on Tai Chi. If you get oodles of data about Form positions and meridian channels try not to look disappointed. If you get data about personal lineage and years of practice under specific grandmasters, try to look interested as best you can and fight the tendency to yawn. Sadly, this sort of “Knowledge” is too often mistaken as “wisdom” when it is merely the memorisation of dates and names. Not the same thing at all.
You could of course cut through all the “facts” and go for the final real test. Try to see if your Sifu or Guru stops talking when you you begin to speak. Don’t be fooled by appearances, for proficient Gurus have mastered the art of appearing to listen when they are in fact only rehearsing what next to say. Want to know what to look for? Read on…
5. THE POSTURE
You can check if your guru is really listening by looking at his/her stance. The Non-Listening Guru-Stance is easily recognisable for one finger will most likely be cleaning an ear whilst the other hand drums on a table top. The mouth is generally open and closing, issuing words and sounds that for all purposes appear relevant, but constitute nothing but pure gobbledygook. Eyes tend to hold a far-away, other planetary look. Possibly Vulcan. The head is either fixed to the clock on the wall to check how many minutes are left in the session, or nodding, as though riding a bouncy train, whilst simultaneously checking their phone for retweets or Instagram hearts.
THE POWER OF SILENCE
So to recap, what you are looking for as a new student to Tai Chi (or any other skill for that matter) is the presence of the secret skill of silence. It is a secret because it is hidden in the word. Rearrange the letters of the word SILENT and you get LISTEN.
Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom, said Francis Bacon and it is in this contemplative moment that we discover the value and the meaning behind words. Now, I’m not talking here about the silence of a monastery, or a meditation room. No, I’m merely referring to the silence of a quietened mind. One that stops for a moment the eternal process of thinking of what it is about to say.
Now, at last you can go armed into the world of Gurus and Sifus with your list of 5 checkpoints, no longer defenceless but ready and prepared for the power of silence. Good Luck. Peace and Long Life as someone with rather shapely ears once said.
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DEADLY BUTTOCK BLOWS & THATCHERISM
Back in the hazy, unruly days of the 1980’s when the Eastern arts had finally settled in the west, teachers felt obliged to copy the sage-like expressions and postures seen in early Kung-fu flicks. They raised eyebrows, sneered or even snarled were anyone to ask the point of wearing a tunic from 17th century China, or why building callouses on the knuckles was more important than keeping them arthritic-free. Why, for instance, students should train themselves to absorb a front kick to the solar plexus, or head-butt an assailant in the buttocks when, perhaps, other life-skills were being called for in the era of Thatcher and Reagonomics? When pushed on the subject for an answer, they merely returned an aloof gaze and warned of the dangers of revealing “truths” to early to those not ready.
Yet Western students were in the habit of receiving less cryptic answers. Even when considering a school, they felt confused as each claimed to offer an exclusive truth and authenticity; an indisputable lineage and an unbeatable system of defence. Was it possible that every school and every system could all be equally true?
GEOMETRY & TAI CHI
Before the onset of self-publishing, Tai Chi books followed a standard pattern: A chapter on family histories and lineage, some old photos of wispy beards, a few vague health claims, even vaguer martial applications and an endless list of sketches of men with numbers below them:
“16d: Now let us move on to the posture called Extract the Stale Loaf from the Bison’s Bladder: Begin by raising your right elbow and place it against your left ear-lobe. Breathe out twice whilst spinning 360 degrees to land with 29% of your weight on your right big toe.
16f: Look North, to North-East, but don’t turn your neck whilst both hands remain in your pockets. Recite thrice “I am plucking the monkey’s knee from the moon”. “
BEAN CURD & TAI CHI
This emphasis on teaching by geometry was part of a general movement in the martial arts to find meaning through definition. The more a subject could be analytically deconstructed, the more it was hailed as a "scientific" fighting art. And so, definitions were lusted after as enthusiastically and as importantly as someone may lust over a shiny new mobile phone or an influential and good-looking follower on Instagram. Styles and teachers adopted names, histories and coloured uniforms to help define themselves and it all got very silly. After having trained in the martial arts since I was knee-high to Lao-Tzu’s Yak, and having taught Tai Chi since the end of the 80’s, silliness was in my blood stream, but I fought against its desire to engage in comparisons and in the categorisation of the arts, particularly when new students would arrive at class:
Classical Student: “ Excuse me, I want to to learn a style of Tai Chi".
Me: Uh huh.
Classical Student: "Yes, a style that is Classically-Authentic, Real and Genuine, Traditional-yet Modern, Uniformed and vertically structured. What style do you teach SIfu-Master-Guru-Sensei?”
Me: First up, the name is Paul. Second, although I have learnt different styles over the years, If I have to come down on one or the other, I woud say I’m drawn to the softness and and non-knee dislocating stances of the Cheng Man-Ching style.
Classical Student:“But, that's not real Tai Chi,(turns and spits on floor), that's a poor westerners version of the real thing taught by a Chinese immigrant to New Yorkers. That’s tantamount to... Bean Curd Boxing!
Although thrown out as an insult, it occurred to me that Bean Curd could be seen as the ultimate yielding material. In fact, a Bean Curd Boxer was the perfect description for someone who could absorb anything thrown at him/her.
A Bean Curd Boxer should fight with other weapons than just clenched fists, perhaps by Softening Their Glare, Banishing Frowns and Slowing Down when asked to speed up. Perhaps a Bean Curd Boxer would not toss shurikens (hidden circular blades tossed like Frisbees at approaching enemies) but instead toss smiles, and perhaps, when backed into a corner come out fighting with well-aimed tales of nonsense and contradiction.
After a while, people would cross the road when they saw me coming, but I wasn't deterred. I began to write down some some these ideas about how this art might resonate with a wider group of people (other than seekers of definitions). In 2009 I published those ideas as The Manual of Bean Curd Boxing.
THE BOOK RELEASE
So here we are in 2017 and looking around, I’m not convinced things have changed so much. There are some good signs that schools have begun to define themselves by the place and time in which they live, but others still seek refuge by “dangling dangerously” from threads of lineage and secrecy, uniforms and uniformity.
Even as we slide blindly into this amorphous digital landscape, it is clear that our tools for imparting "knowledge" need updating as well as the mind-set of teachers. Perhaps now, the medium needs to move beyond the traditional formats of class locality, class leadership, and beyond the anachronistic definitions of “Masters” and Gurus. Perhaps now, new technologies can offer the study of Tai Chi - with all its colourful philosophy and inherently supple and flexible nature - in a more interactive, transparent, accountable and a less rigid, vertical structure.
Rising to the challenges of the age, last year after 25 years of teaching, I stopped teaching local classes, I began to move around and travel more and in the process explored the notion of teaching an online Tai Chi course based on the ideas from the book.
How that first year panned out, will be the subject of a follow-up post. Don't miss the sequel. Subscribe and get notifications here.
THE BCB BUNDLE: 5 FREEBIES OVER 48 HOURS
Help celebrate Bean Curd Boxing this weekend by claiming your 5-part bundle and spreading the bean-curd message across the known universe. Let’s see if we can distribute the bundle to the outer regions of the solar system and back, calling in at the Pink Ice Palace on the Moon (the Home of the Immortal Gods) - so they too will have something to read over the weekend. Go on, Share the bundle with a friend (or enemy) ...
Want more than just words? Who Can blame you? Come over to the Teapot Temple and test-drive a little Tai Chi today. Take the FREE Mini Course and get these 3 ebooks to help you decide of Tai Chi is for you.
The festive season throws up difficult questions for the student of enlightenment in a digital age. What to gift your favourite Guru when s/he already embodies universal wholeness and satisfaction? Well, fret no more, for the teapotmOnk has researched what most Gurus still lack. Just slip a ball-point pen and this handy suggestion list under your Guru as s/he is levitating so when they return to Earth they can circle the item that appeals the most.
Read the TOP 5 Gifts For the Guru in Your Life before it's too late.
Read the whole post on Medium here.
Want to know more about medium?
FESTIVE READ FOR THE HOLIDAY SEASON...
intro: video: holiday OFFER
It's almost the end of the year and the end of a tremendous series of workshops from deep within the teapot temple. This week, the penultimate workshop goes live focusing on Energy Exercises, including self-massage techniques, a review of the Energy Exercise Series including a powerful new exercises called: Draw the Energy From the Earth, and finally - an investigation into Qi: what it feels like, what it looks like and how to practice the qi exercises on the street. Take a look at the sneak video preview below.
And as promised, a final end of year holiday offer to all my readers: Check out the details below or go straight to the temple and enroll now, before the limited number of coupons run out!
Interested in learning online with the mOnk?
Know someone who has always wanted to learn Tai Chi? Why not gift the entire course as a present to someone this holiday? Until the end of December 2016, you can grab $50 off the price of the 12 month course - down from $150 to $100 - (Which includes 12 workshops and 12 full colour instruction manuals). Take a look at what the course offers HERE and then use the holiday promo code below. Happy Holidays.
It may sound obvious to you (hopefully), but increasingly I’m having to repeat this sentence to those enquiring about online activities, social media, email subscribers, learning courses: The acquisition of anything worthwhile is not purchasable in itself - you can’t just downloaded a skill, in the same way you can an app or a digital song. Followers, insights, clarity and membership of tribes must be earned. As much as it may be marketed to the contrary, none of these things can be purchased on PayPal.
Yet, I suppose I should not be surprised. Everywhere such promises are made:
THE NUMBERS GAME
The numbers game sucks us all in. Who doesn’t want instant and indefinite numbers of thumbs-ups? More little Instagram hearts? More Retweets? More followers? But before you succumb to the promises of marketing “experts” and social media “gurus”, pause a moment. For at its best, acquisition for the sake of acquisition fools no-one (hopefully) and may deter genuinely interested followers. Secondly, simply copying and pasting the route others have taken, may help show you HOW a new skill is acquired, but at its worse, such actions will do little else but contribute to the tidal wave of derivative nonsense that we are all slowly sinking beneath.
WHAT WORKS FOR YOU PROBABLY WON’T WORK FOR ME
Yes, I know you are an eager new entrepreneur, impatient, and driven by the promise of shiny toys. You are of the generation where new Internet Guru’s promise Online (sexual, social, political, anthropological, nautical, geopolitical, ecological, astrological and of course financial) success by merely trading-in an email. Who wouldn’t be tempted? After all, if it works for them, it can work for me.
But if history has taught us one thing, it’s that we chose not to learn from the lessons of history. We’d rather sign up to a newsletter, flick through an instantly forgotten time-line, await the next Instagram heart rather than pursue the attainment of any long-term beneficial skill. In fact, we would rather do anything in order to defer having to sit down and face a blank screen, and in silence, watch the blinking cursor taunting us: “Come on now, you know there is no shortcut here, move me to the right. You can do this”.
Languages and Tracing Paper
For 22 years I’ve been living in Spain. Outsiders always say - hey you must be fluent by now! Well, no, thats not the case. Language proficiency doesn’t come about by osmosis or geographical location. It comes about by persistent hard work. You learn the verb-tenses, the moods and you learn the vocabulary. You listen, you read, you engage. There are no short-cuts. If we truly want to develop language skills, we need to go through those difficult , tricky moments, stumbling and getting back up again when we fall. That’s how we learn.
An artist once told me that he learnt to draw comic book heroes with tracing paper. He said that he thought he was learning, but all he really learned was how to hold the paper down with one hand, and follow a series of lines with the other.
Using tracing paper is a practice that produces a generation of artists that can paint by numbers, that can produce by imitation, but are at loss as to what to do with a blank canvas.
TURN DOWN THE VOLUME
So try this: put down the tracing paper, the Google translate-app on your mobile phone or the painting by numbers kit and instead try picking up a pencil. Look out the window and do nothing. Maybe tap the pencil in rhythm to a random thought. Watch the dog snore. Just listen to the patter of rain on the window. Stop trying to do anything specific, stop trying to be anything and stop trying to achieve anything. Just listen for a moment until you hear the sound of your own breath. If you give yourself a little time and space, when the digital flotsam and jetsam have drifted past, you may just hear your own voice and not that of your guru.
FEAR NOT THE PRESENCE OF NOTHING
Then, when your voice gradually becomes louder and clearer you can begin. There will be no signpost however, no map, no easy steps to a zillion followers or instant cup-a-soup wisdom, despite the advert. But there will be an absence of noise. And today, that is an increasingly rare thing. It’s a challenge for sure, but challenges are empowering, and these challenges might just nudge you along, your as-yet, unmapped, but personal path.
Many practitioners of the Eastern Arts tell me they have no problem with discipline. They are self-motivated gods who effortlessly arise each morning before dawn, jog down to their local park and for the following 3 hours stand immobile, concentrating on little-known techniques such as the Reverse Iron-Nose Breathing Set, or the almost forgotten practice of the Fainting-Cockroach-Eyebrow-Expulsion Moon Dance.
Then, satisfied they have taken sufficient selfies and merged with the Tao, they jog home to upload their morning activities. Then they knock-back a watercress and garlic smoothie, drop into a Plank position for 3 hours and simultaneously work through a self-study course on 17th century Mandarin, before heading off to work.
I’m always impressed when I talk to these people, for I’ve never been much of a example to others. I generally lack such discipline, I easily find reasons to postpone work, I get distracted and I hate getting up whilst it is still dark.
So how can someone with a routine like mine, keep up a motivational practice? How can I break poor habits and adopt new ones when I’m such an indisciplined lout?
After teaching Tai Chi for over 25years, I'm aware that the problem is not exclusively mine. Most new students rarely practice outside the class hours, much as they may be encouraged to do so. Most Instructors and regular students don't seem to understand the difficulties in maintaining a regular practice outside the class, because for them it is not an issue. But for most new students it is, and if its one they don't resolve, then they probably will give up the practice. Numbers show that most new students to Tai Chi do not stay around beyond the first few months.
To help my students at home, I did try to set up a Whatsapp group, that succeeded in getting them to organise socials together, but rarely to train. I've organised SLACK forums where questions can be raised and issues or practices discussed, but again, public forums are not always what is required with a private practice. So then I looked at private motivational apps and in particular one that could be used for trying out something new for a period of time (let's say 30 days) - for example to Read a book, complete an outstanding DIY job, contemplate a change of schedule or routine.
There are plenty of mobile phone apps that will help you accomplish this task - my favourite of the moment is called Streaks. It permits just 6 habits to be pursued, and I add to this a 30 day time limit.
Later, after completing the 30 days, you may want to repeat it or do more. But start with small habits. Small habits that are thoughtfully formed, become part of your daily work, and become part of who you are. Who you are is always alive and always open to change. This is why after 30 days you can decide what you want to do. Change is always an option.
It's a good idea to add habits that you find you have difficulty practising. For example, lots of people add “Walk the dog” or Clean my teeth”. Personally, I think these should be second nature if you are either a dog or teeth owner, but if in your case this is not so, then add them in the app until they become part of your daily routine. Then let go. Change, its all about absorbing routine in order to let it go.
Keep it varied to keep it fresh
I thought this was just me, but then I read this report saying that we achieve more when our routines are fresh and challenging. So, the goldfish has another 20 days to go. I’ll let you know how well he does.
Stand Like A Flamingo and Walk like a Cat are two techniques taught in the Teapotmonk Online courses. Want to learn more about Tai Chi? Check out the Free ebook and Tai Chi Course here.
Streaks app for Android or IOS - more info here.
Change Your Routine - There is a lot of research done on why varying your routines can be more effective than intensifying them. Try Googling the subject or read this as a starter.
Students always ask me to recommend good books on Tai Chi but it is not easy to give concrete suggestions without
knowing what each person is looking for. Many ask for "How to" books, but these are often regretful purchases as they end up incompatible with the students style, school or teachers preferences.
So I give suggestions for books that transmit a flavour rather than a specific set of techniques or instructions. What follows is the teapotmOnk list of the Best 12 Books (In the known Universe) that savour this flavour. I have selected not only the best five books on the art of Tai Chi, but as well the best three versions of the Tao Te Ching and two essential books on digging deeper into Taoism. I've also added associate links to Amazon - but not all are available (outside second hand bookshops).
Best 5 books on Tai Chi (in the known universe)
Tai Chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Transmissions. Douglas Wile
FACTUAL: The book that has inspired much of my writing over the years, Wile begins by explaining that there are no real secrets (something echoed below by Lowenthal) and that much of what we swallow as accepted martial arts history is in fact just the personal accounts of individuals or schools with their own specific agenda. Excellent read and a book you will come back to again and again.
There Are No Secrets: Professor Cheng Man Ch'ing and His T'ai Chi Chuan. Wolfe Lowenthal
ANECDOTAL: In a similar vein, this book (by an ex-student of Man Ching) delves into great detail of the man who - perhaps more than any others - introduced Tai Chi to a non Chinese audience. Fascinating anecdotes, from the 60's/70's, insights into practice as well as juicy bites of wisdom, such as the title of the book itself.
Embrace Tiger Return to Mountain: Chungliang Al Huang
PERSONAL: Yes, okay this is somewhat of a Hippy 70's interpretation of the art and does has some rather embarrassing photos, but despite the clothes and the 70's speak, it reads like a breath of fresh air in comparison to all those geometric obsessive instruction manuals that deliver little other than angles and weight percentages. Al worked alongside Alan Watts and you'll sense that influence in his words.
The Manual of Bean Curd Boxing: Paul Read
PERSONAL: Most books on Tai Chi contain a high percentage of no-sense, thinly disguised as "eastern" wisdom or mystical sage-like secret transmissions. This book makes no claim to any of that nonsense, instead asking why we practice this art in the 21st century and what can we expect to find in it? Irreverent in way that a Taoist Art ought to be.
Tai Chi Ch'uan: The Technique of Power. Horwitz, Tem and Kimmelman
INTRODUCTION: Dismissed as too general by the dogmatic Taoists, this book features here for it serves as an all-round useful introduction to Tai Chi. It not only includes a little history, philosophy and even photos (too many and rather meaningless for me), but also attempts to try and relate the principles of the art to other disciplines - and in so doing - bring the practice up to date. Few books try, even fewer succeed.
Best 3 versions of Tao Te Ching that actually make sense
Unlike most versions of the Tao Te Ching that three-quarters of the book attempting to justify the interpretation of a single character or accent, these three versions merely interpret a document (of immense dubious origins and authorship) for a contemporary audience, creating something of practical value as a result.
John Lash: The Tai Chi Journey
Lash attempts, and I believe in a great many ways succeeds, to interpret the Tao Te Ching for the benefit of the Tai Chi student. The book is easy to read, you can plunge in at almost any part and still find something thoughtful and well presented. Ideal if you find the average Tao Te Ching just too vague.
Not available in digital form.
Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching - Ursula K. Le Guin
“To believe that our beliefs are permanent truths which encompass reality is a sad arrogance. To let go of that belief is to find safety.”
A very personal and libertarian interpretation for all those that aren't satisfied with the esoteric versions that abound. Le Guin brings a fresh perspective to this classic text (and one well overdue).
Getting Right with the Tao: Ron Hogan
"Stop doing stuff all the time and watch what happens".
Finally, to close up this section, Ron Hogan's now radical, contemporary and no non-sense version of the Tao Te Ching.
Best 2 books on Taoism that don't rely on mysticism
The Way and Its Power: Tao Te Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought
This is really another version of the Tao Te Ching, but the first half of the book includes an excellent historical context for Taoism. Not a light read before bed, nor a gripping mystery page-turner, it's still a useful addition to a trainee immortal's library.
John Blofeld; Taoism A Quest for Immortality
This is the classic book that sparked the interest of many in the lesser known philosophical roots of Tai Chi (and for me, acts as the key reference text for my online Tai chi course: To Become An Immortal.) Blofeld writes with simplicity, great insight and manages to avoid reducing the whole subject to simple "wishful thinking". His writing is engaging and above all, his messages come across as relevant today as at any time in the long history of this art.
Unfortunately, Out of Print and not available in digital form. 2nd Hand only.
Well thats my list. It could have gone on and on, and in fact I do have a longer list on goodreads, but these are the core books I come back to over and over again. Have I missed out something essential? Let me know what you think should also be on the list.
REBOOT YOUR LIFE WITH 21ST CENTURY TAI CHI
Explore the fascinating art of Tai Chi with this FREE 3- ebook and video course from the mOnk AND take the Tai Chi Quiz - Find out more here.
It's 23rd June 2016: Britain votes to stay or leave the European Union and on Sunday, my adopted country of Spain tries - for the 2nd time in 6 months - to vote in a new government. What marks both these events (other than sharing the same week for elections) is the sharp divisions and entrenchment that has characterised the respective campaigns. How then, does a Tai Chi warrior of the 21st century respond to a world in disarray?
listen - and then listen again
The phrase "Listening energy" is tossed around rather liberally in the world of Chinese internal arts, with endless debates about what it is and how it should be applied. These debates are often a clue in themselves to how well the exponents have internalised the lessons. Defensive posturing is often a sign that the words have been memorised, but not taken to heart.
Which is a shame, as Tai Chi offers real training in learning to understand the posture and energy of another - not so as to exploit that knowledge - but to assist in comprehension and mutual understanding. This is seen in the exercise of push-hands in which the aim for both people is to "listen" and learn from the moves of each, and to share in that experience. Alas, it too often is allowed to degenerate into a wrestling match - in which little is learnt in other than the glory of winning.
So where does a Taoist toast-crunching urban dweller stand in the great political movements of the week? On the fence? No, not exactly, but s/he does stand on moving ground, for in order to break down division one has to be able to move with fluidity. Yielding, adapting, staying low and then stepping up and stepping forward when the moment is right. When is the moment right? When change can take place, either by setting an example or by instigating a movement.
Today and Saturday are two of those moments. Obviously, you will vote as you will, but I do ask that you do so without blaming, that you do so without anger and that you do so without fear, for if not, these things will not only burn inside you, they will ignite all that you touch.
For more on 21st Century Tai Chi see this list of unmissible posts
Tempted to give Tai Chi a try? Grab this free 3 part ebook and video class here for free.
THE TAO OF POLITICS
Most people think that Taoists should place themselves outside the everyday affairs of wo/men. They believe that a GOOD TAOIST should only reiterate Lao Tzu sayings on Pinterest and other social media, preferably accompanied by a nice graphic. This is the good path, the safe path, the middle ground that assures no-ones moral or political toes will be stepped upon.
But this interpretation of Taoism, seems more rooted in the Confucianist ideal of maintaining order, maintaining a strict hierarchy and ultimately maintaining power exactly where it is RIGHT NOW (cue toe tapping taoist tune)
COSTUMES AND BADGES
One of the key themes in my work is to present Tai Chi as a practice that challenges the constraints of hierarchy and ritual. Consequently, YES, I admit it! I do mock those that sell the art on its uniforms and certificates. Some say, that this is just the mOnk being controversial for controversy sake, but I'd argue that these dusty approaches to learning are inaccurate and unhelpful, and at worse, ingenious devices to maintain control in what Alan Watts has termed, a wiggly world.
Such myopia is evident too in the unspoken politics of each school - where for one school to be right, another must be wrong. For one style to be better, another must be worse. For one school to advertise itself as the “real thing”, implies all others are false. And this goes to the heart of the issue with the wearers of costumes, badges and belts, for in paving the rigid steps of progress through the reenactment of ritual, we undermine the tremendous plurality that students can bring to the arts, with their potential for evolution, their ripe tendency for tolerance and the coexistence of opposing ideas. Instead there is a best toleration, at worse condemnation for those that do not walk the same path.
Taoism gives us the tools for doing better. And we can do better.
The Tao Te Ching shows us that everything is in change and flux. There is, and there never has been a uniformity of perspective. Those that advertise most extensively, that shout loudest, that claim they possess the one truth, the correct lineage, the one true transmission - display an inflexibility at exactly the moment we need diversity and plurality.
In the writings of Chuang Tzu (Inner Chapters) we see a clear political affinity with the lowlands rather than the high peaks for it is there, we are told, that the Tao dwells, in the bottom of the valleys and in the streets rather than the embellished and righteous courts of the Confucians. And so to politics - without plurality, diversity and multiple forms of representation - we foster the unhealthy belief in the one single path, the single political body, the one religion, the one form of democracy, the one tai chi authentic form (ha ha), the single cake recipe, the one unique sandwich filling, that leads - as always - to competition, violence and war. Okay, maybe not over sandwiches but you get my point.
So what organisations can reflect ideals of flexibility, simplicity and plurality? Are there any organisational forms that foster the dust-free path, where not only is the exploitation of man by man opposed, but the dominion of man over man too?
Well, certainly there are seeds to be found in the collective ideals within the voluntary simplicity movement, there are interesting ideas in the downsizing movement, the occupation movement and of course - now hold on to your incense sticks here - the Anarchist movement. And before you call out the counter-terrorist police and issue them with my phone number, first look up something of anarchist history and the writers that have expressed parallel ideals, such as Henry David Thoreau who wrote that government is best which governs not at all.
Anarchism has a rather fascinating and extremely rich, creative history with pragmatic well organised proposals for a possible future. This would be just an academic discussion were it not for the Spanish experiment in 1936, recorded by George Orwell and later espoused eloquently by Noam Chomsky in which a new society came about that offered free non-politicised education, free health care, transport, homes, work for all etc etc. An example, unfortunately crushed by an international opposition. (See links below for references to these books, as well as novels and a version of the Tao Te Ching by Ursula Le Guin.)
So, to my point. Well, society has always been changed by new challenges to old ways. History has been forged by people who learnt from it, but were not chained to it. This is the history of the martial arts. We just forget it in our rush to revere the past masters, methods and rituals. Don't get me wrong, Taoism is great for bite-sized quotes, cloud watching commentaries and observations on nature, but lets not forget it also has an organisational side that leans - in my humble opinion - towards a libertarian localised form of representative politics.
So what do you think? Are these writers wildly wrong? Have they misunderstood the Tao Te Ching and the role of past masters? Are we liberated or chained to past ideals? Whatever you conclude, take a look at the links below. Leave a comment here, on twitter or FB and I'll try to answer as best I can.
This post is also available as a podcast.
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Contrary to popular belief, the teapotmOnk (paul read) is neither a mOnk nor a teapOt. He is, however, a writer on Tai Chi, a podcaster & teacher with more than 25 years of experience. Can be found wandering between Andalucia, Spain & Devon, Uk.
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