Monday, November 12, 2007

Tai Chi, Aikido, and Writing

For several years recently at our school, Sifu Andrew Lum, one of the world’s most accomplished practitioners of tai chi, led a weekly afterschool workshops in tai chi, an art which involves, movement, breathing, and what might be called centeredness or mental discipline. The word chi in the expression tai chi is usually understood to mean something like “vital energy.” In tai chi, one’s breathing should be coordinated with one’s movements in relation to the movement of chi, which both surrounds us and moves within us. Many basic tai chi movements are large circular movements whose purpose is to stir up the energy surrounding us and draw it into our bodies; these movements are generally accompanied by an inward breath which reinforces or helps to gather chi. Many other basic movements are outward movements of the extremities whose purpose is to extend chi into the immediate surroundings; these movements are generally accompanied by an outward breath which reinforces or helps to deliver chi. The movements in tai chi are thus designed to gather chi, to strengthen and shape it, and then to extend it outward. In this respect the basic dynamic principles of tai chi are not unlike those of many other spiritual or aesthetic disciplines: for example, writing.

The first move a writer generally needs to make is a kind of inhalation, a gathering. It is probably no accident that the word “inspiration” has the literal meaning, in Latin, “breathing in.” Often when I sit down to write and face the blank page in front of me, I quite literally take a deep breath and begin to consider what to write, where to begin. This process of collecting my thoughts is sometimes quite conscious and deliberate, and sometimes simply a quick preliminary to a decision to simply let loose a flow of words upon the page without much conscious deliberation. In either case, though, there is at least a moment of stillness, of gathering, before the delivery of the words onto the paper: the analogical equivalent of the inward breath.

The process of writing, once begun, involves a lot of shaping. As I write these words at this moment, I have some sense of where I am headed. (In fact, I have next to my laptop a notebook in which I have pasted a series of three file cards which I filled out some time after midnight two days ago when I awoke from a restless sleep with many of these thoughts already bouncing around in my head.) But the sentence I am writing right now is taking shape as I type, and I am doing a lot of fiddling around with the wording even as I write. I type a few words, I delete them, I type them again in a slightly different order, I delete them, I try again. The forward movement of the words down the page is not always headlong onslaught, it is more like the movement of the whitewater raftsmen John McPhee describes in his essay “Reading the River”:

When modern canoemen go down a river in a wild-water race, covering distance against a clock, the amplitude of what they do is not so immediately apparent as it is when, at a time of leisure, they stop to enjoy a rapid. They can, for example, go zipping down a braided white torrent and suddenly stop dead in the middle of it, turn around, and hover, like a trout in a stream. Facing the current, they will nose down behind a ledge and let the full force of the river pour upon their bows while they sit there contemplating. They will come schussing through a rip, crash through an eddy wall, rest a moment, poised and quiet, then peel off through the far line of the eddy and drop so fast that soon only their heads are visible from the place where they paused to rest. Darting into an eddy on one side of the river, they will sit steady, facing in the direction from which they came, then slice the canoe decisively into the main current, paddling hard upstream. The result of this maneuver, called a ferry, is that they go skidding sidewise directly across the river, despite its velocity, without moving six inches downstream. To them, the white water is not a chaos of flow and spray but a legible language, and they know how to read it.

For me, writing is like that. Sometimes the flow of words is tentative, hesitant, explorational; at other times the words press forward and flow onto the page as if driven by some sort of internal subliminal logic over which I have little control. More often, there is a sort of dynamic tension between the words as they present themselves to my conscious mind, and the selection and ordering and alignment of those words by my conscious mind, which is guided by a set of rules for the way the language works so deeply ingrained in me that I am hardly aware of them, except in those instances where some particularly tricky rhetorical maneuver—this interruptive phrase, for example, set off from the rest of the sentence by em dashes, which on my computer require a separate three-key entry—demands that I switch from autopilot to conscious control. The entire in-process set of moves involved in drafting a piece of writing is not unlike the analogous set of steps and gestures in a tai chi set, which is also rule-driven and subject to both subliminal and conscious redirection at every stage. More significantly, there is the basic energy-transfer dynamic, in which what has been gathered (chi on the one hand, words and thoughts on the other) is re-shaped and then dispelled, dispersed, distributed into the environment.

My wife is a student of aikido. The root word in aikido, ki, is pretty much the same word and the same concept as the word chi in tai chi, and in fact the disciplines of tai chi and aikido have many other concepts in common. A primary difference is that tai chi is a discipline that is usually practiced individually, whereas as aikido is always practiced with a partner.

The four basic principles of aikido are

1. Keep one point.
2. Weight underside.
3. Relax completely.
4. Extend ki.

“Keep one point” refers to the need for a spiritual and physical center for coordinated movement of mind and body. There is an area of the body just below the naval which is understood to be the center of one’s bodily balance and, not coincidentally, the source and center of bodily energy, or ki. It is a matter of discipline and concentration in aikido to maintain one’s awareness of this center point and to move from the one point, keeping it central.

“Weight underside” refers to maintaining one’s balance by keeping a low center of gravity. By making a conscious effort to stay low to the ground, one is able to move more freely and with greater self-assurance.

“Relax completely” refers to the efficiency of relaxed alertness. One learns quickly in aikido that the body is both stronger and more flexible when it is fully relaxed. One of the core texts that I ask my students to read each year is an excerpt from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintentance in which Robert Pirsig talks about the state of mind that comes with being stuck. The worst thing that can happen, according to Pirsig, is that you become impatient and uptight and frustrated with the situation. That’s when things can go very badly wrong. He says,

Let’s consider a reevaluation of the situation in which we assume that that stuckness now occurring, the zero of consciousness, isn’t the worst of all possible situations, but the best possible situation you could be in. After all, it’s exactly this stuckness that Zen Buddhists go to so much trouble to induce; through koans, deep breathing, sitting still, and the like… this is a moment to be not feared but cultivated.

In essence, what Pirsig is saying is that we must be able to relax in such a situation, we must be able to be where we are and not expend energy wishing we were somewhere else. In this case, keeping one point and relaxing completely amount to something like the same thing.

Finally we arrive at “Extend ki,” which is where we come back to the energy exchange dynamic that we first began discussing in regard to tai chi and writing, but that applies in aikido and in every aspect of daily life as well. To extend ki is to take the energy inside oneself and make it visible and effective in the world outside. In a martial arts event, one might extend ki in order to move or block an opponent. In music, one might extend ki by producing a tonal vibration in the atmosphere. In teaching, one might extend ki by establishing psychic contact with every student in the room by virtue of one’s actions and presence. And in writing, one might extend ki in order first to push a line of thought onto a page, and second to develop and shape that line of thought, as for example I have been doing here.

There is also, in almost every discipline, the need to submit yourself to a routine, to practice. Each tai chi class begins with a series of slow stretches, led by the instructor, that are coordinated with inhalation and exhalation of breath. Each stretch is repeated several times, and the sequence of stretches is the same from class to class. After the sequence is completed, we begin to work on our sets. A set is a sequence of choreographed movements, always done in the same order, and again coordinated with one’s breathing. The teacher begins by demonstrating a short sequence of movements. For example, one might raise one’s hands in front of the body to the level of the shoulders while inhaling, drop them down while exhaling, raise them to the sides and over the head in a circle while inhaling, and back down to the front in a circular motion while exhaling, and then stop. Then we repeat. Then we repeat again. Each time we move slowly and with close attention to the breath. After enough repetitions to the point where everyone is balanced and in sync, the teacher might add another movement, crossing the arms in front of the body and “separating the clouds” at eye level, then bringing the arms back down to form a basket shape below the waist. Then we start at the beginning and run through the whole sequence again. And again. And again, until we are ready for the addition of yet another set of moves.

This practice may sound tedious, but it is anything but. It’s relaxing, and reassuring, and forgiving. Sifu Lum says we must learn to “Do without doing; try without trying.” There is no hurry. There is no prize for finishing first. There is no penalty for finishing last, or for forgetting a move in the middle of the sequence. There’s going to be another chance next time, in a moment or two. Ultimately, it’s not about moving ahead. It’s about being centered where you are, about doing what you are doing, here and now.

1 comment:

Doug Noon said...

I may read this several times. I like the metaphor and the reflection on crafting a coherent piece. The first time through I read quickly to see where it would go, but I didn't linger. I'll come back and think about many of these ideas again, like the boatman.

McPhee's Coming into the Country nudged me to move to Alaska 27 years ago. Aikido is an art I was exposed to briefly many years ago.

I often wonder about the impetus to write. What is it? Is there a pattern behind the urge to map thought to lines on a page?

The last paragraph is one that I'll print and post near my desk. Thank you.