Saturday, June 19, 2010


Do you deserve it?

Teaching T'ai-Chi, I'm always amazed that people seem to have so much resistance to the parts of the art that I find the most deeply pleasurable.

I do a variation of the Yang family style with more similarities to the original Chen family T'ai-Chi than most Yang styles. In fact, I usually call it "Chen flavored Yang Style". What this means is that rather than continually moving at the same speed and same height, we establish a rhythm of acceleration and deceleration, opening and closing, as well as rising and falling slightly within the movements. We do this to include and use gravity to our advantage, both martially and for our health. It is, after all, "free" energy. Why not use it to minimize the wear and tear of life on the body? If we can align with it, accept it into our bodies, store and issue it efficiently, gravity can truly become our friend.

In our style, when we do a T'ai-Chi form we move continuously, but not at the same speed. We slow down when we coil, sinking into the legs. Then we pick up speed as we begin to shift weight and move towards the next "stance". As we arrive we slow down again to let the momentum of the weight shift move through us, reclaim our centers, and drain tension back into the legs and into the ground. And then the next movement begins. There are no stops, but we do slow down a lot as we "arrive" in the postures or stances.

It is precisely this pausing, sinking and settling that seems to be so difficult for so many people. Even people who want to do it, are trying to do it and think they are doing it, don't do it. There is still a kind of restlessness that will not allow them to participate fully in this sinking and slowing process. They arrive in the stance and after a quick sink, move on to the next movement.

(I'm not talking here about people training in the so-called "traditional" Yang family forms. They are deliberately trying move at one continuous speed and at one continuous height and trying not to stop or even pause because that is correct within that style. I don't like this way of doing T'ai-Chi, but if that is your style, you should do it correctly for that style.)

Whether I'm coiling to get ready to issue energy, or sinking after having just issued, the moment or "beat" of rest is what I enjoy so much, the emptying and settling, the reclaiming of whatever neutral readiness I might have lost during the previous movement. It's like when a big breeze hits a tree and all the leaves and branches respond and yield to the energy of the wind. Then, when the breeze has expended itself, all the branches and leaves recover and reclaim their previous position. It's this recovering that I find so interesting, valuable and pleasurable.

And yet, I see people gloss right over it, already half way through the next movement while I'm still settling after the last one. I have a theory about why some people, including myself, have a limited tolerance for this particular pleasure, and why we restlessly wiggle out of enjoying it.

I think there are basically two kinds of pleasure, earned and unearned. Earned pleasures come primarily from the work we put into them. For example, the pleasure that comes from learning to play an instrument. You have to work to earn that pleasure. It doesn't just happen, it is connected to what you actively do. Listening to music, on the other hand, is more of an unearned pleasure.

Unearned pleasure is different and comes from being rather than doing. It is simply the pleasure that comes from being where you are and taking in what is there. It is the pleasure that comes from letting go. Sleeping can be this kind of pleasure. I call it "unearned" because it is not the direct result of focused effort. It's just there.

There is earned pleasure in doing T'ai-Chi for sure. You couldn't enjoy practicing T'ai-Chi if you didn't work at it. But there is also unearned pleasure in practicing T'ai-Chi as well. It is the simple pleasure of recovering your balance and becoming ready for the next thing life has to offer, the pleasure of just feeling neutral, ready, and in the moment.

I think that to enjoy this unearned pleasure I have to feel basically OK about myself. I have to feel deserving of pleasure that I have not earned. And this is the difficult part. If I've been knocked off center by my childhood experiences as so many of us have been, if I am lacking in a basic sense of self worth and OK-ness, then this unearned pleasure makes me uncomfortable and stirs up painful feelings that I'd rather avoid.

I used to be much more comfortable with the pleasures I had earned and proven myself worthy of. I was also more comfortable with pleasures that kept me too busy to feel any underlying feelings. I would do and do and do, and then feel entitled to my reward. I had overcome, for a moment, my basic feeling of being unworthy or undeserving. When it came time to "just be", as with this sinking and pausing between movements, I would feel a deep urge to "do something". Simply resting there and enjoying that moment would feel deeply or subtly uncomfortable. Restlessness would take over and doing would push away being.

So, as a teacher I keep encouraging myself and my students to slow down and let these moments happen. We can all go right back to doing and striving and proving ourselves worthy whenever we want to, but for now, I say, Just enjoy and sink into this. I'm basically encouraging people, myself included, to increase our tolerance for this state of being. Even if we can slow down just a bit, settle just a moment longer, I think it is worthwhile to study this process and accept whatever progress we make. Over the years, I've radically improved my own tolerance for this moment to the point where it's the greatest pleasure I get from T'ai-Chi.

To use a botanical analogy: If I move too soon, the fruit is not ripe, doesn't taste good and isn't as nutritious. If I wait too long, the fruit gets rotten, doesn't taste good and isn't as nutritious. I encourage waiting until the fruit is as ripe as it can be without spoiling and then going on the next movement.

Another very interesting avenue I think worth exploring is to honestly answer these questions: Do you feel you deserve what you have in your life? Do you feel you deserve what you are aiming to have in your life? How do your answers effect how you live?

If you feel you do not really deserve what you are striving for, maybe you should strive for something else, or find a deeper layer within yourself where you do feel you deserve what you want. I think that often our goals are in opposition to our inner feelings and are actually an attempt to cancel out or compensate for those very feelings. It doesn't really work though, because unfelt feelings do not go away no matter what you achieve or believe. The way to get rid of them is to feel them as completely as possible and let them go, at least that's been my experience so far. Letting go of feelings without actually feeling them seems to me like the New Age wet dream. Nice but impossible.

My advice on this issue, if you want to pursue this with T'ai-Chi or any other self study practice, is to gently increase your tolerance for unearned pleasure by slowing down, even a tiny bit, and taking more of it in. I had a friend in New York who's acting teacher would always tell him, When you think you're going too slow, slow down! Good advice, I think. And, in addition, explore your own inner feelings about your basic worth as a person and what you honestly feel you deserve in life.

I also recommend avoiding people who claim they can get you through this process instantly or quickly or "simply". In my experience this is, at best, just New Age wishful thinking designed to trigger hope that the resistance and difficulties involved can be easily "transcended" or "transmuted". At worst, it is designed to feed this hope and to get you to part with your money and/or worshipful attention. I say, let the quick fixes go. Even a basic tolerance for unearned pleasure can take years and it never ends.

And lastly, all of the above is just one reason why some people might have a hard time with these "Yin" receptive moments. There can be other reasons too. In some people, the act of opening up to anything stirs up deep feelings of fear or anger. Even if they feel worthy of the unearned pleasure, these feelings make it feel unsafe to open up to it.

For these people, the issue isn't so much whether or not they feel deserving of unearned pleasure but whether they can feel and release these other feelings first. For many people letting go in general is very threatening and difficult whether they feel deserving or not. For these people, working on becoming more at home in their bodies, feeling and letting go of old anger, fears and judgments would be the primary practice.

Whatever the obstacle to surrendering into the body, I believe it is best to work through it in a similar way, that is to say, persistently, a little at a time, letting go of whatever it is possible to let go of in each movement and accepting a gradual progress.

The most general thing I can say about feeling into these Yin moments is that it involves letting go and opening up a kind of space in the body. The same space where unfelt feelings live, whether those feelings are about safety, fear, or self worthiness. If this space is too painful, then we tend to speed up, hold on and avoid it. Developing a tolerance for whatever discomfort arises when I open up to feel these Yin moments, especially in the T'ai-Chi form, has been one of the most rewarding practices of my life.