Tai Chi and the Tao of Paradox

May 11, 2020

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I love tai chi. I’ve been studying and practicing it for years. As with any long term relationship, I do find myself frustrated from time to time. The fact that my practice is so indirect is what gets to me. While it’s true that I can perform forms or stand when I choose, the actual internal growth doesn’t come from either; instead, it comes from that which I permit to happen inside of those practices.

I cannot force myself to be at ease. Rather, I can stand with good alignment and allow myself to relax more deeply. When it goes well, my integrity and relaxation feed each other and growth occurs. But often I’ll be seeking growth and will quite literally try too hard. I’ll get too fixated and my intention puts me in tension. During those times, I’m actually preventing growth. The Tao Te Ching tells us of this kind of paradox in the first verse:

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations

The desire for understanding often reduces dynamics to their mere effects.

So practice seems to be a paradox. If I practice with a desire to improve, I’ll flatten the dynamics and end up with empty forms. If I don’t want to improve, why practice?

A surreal black and white painting of chess piece closely resembling a cow doing calisthenics.

“Cow Pawn” by Alexandra Yakovleva

These lines from the same, seminal text tell us that the paradox of indirectness is built into the universe, that its subject is actually unsayable:

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.

A literal student would put the book down. If it can’t be said with words, why read about it? But the poetic manual continues for another eighty chapters so something more must be going on here. Perhaps insights might be gained in trying to understand the ineffable through words when we don’t hang on too tightly to the words. If we begin knowing that the truth itself cannot be adequately expressed, perhaps we can pick up some hints as we explore the text. Practice seems like this: if I don’t hang on too tightly to the forms or the stance, but use them to explore internal dynamics, perhaps I’ll find something.

Often I joke with students that much of what I say are “lies pointing in the direction of truth.” There is an inherent limitation in description—particularly when it comes to internal dynamics. How would an opera singer describe the sensation of singing and holding a perfect note? We can definitively name what syllable and note are being sung, but it is impossible to express that same definitive quality in the singer’s description of how s/he generates and experiences the sound.

As students advance, tai chi increasingly reflects these paradoxes. At the beginning, many things can be communicated in a direct and specific way: e.g., putting one’s feet in the right place for a proper stance can be communicated easily. To get to real health and martial benefits we need more than that. We need internal skills and deep relaxation while having good integrity. Relaxing into the earth in this stance cannot be communicated very directly. Nonetheless a good teacher will work hard to make subtle dynamics as observable as possible. In the example of rooting, a teacher might do pressure testing with students so they can feel differences or drop root with a student so the dynamic is more palpable.

An attitude of exploration seems the most effective way to participate with teachings while resting in paradox. If I’m exploring root, I might put myself in proper alignment and then explore my body for tensions and release those. Then I might send my awareness as far down into the ground as I can and try to find new ways of sinking my root. I might try different images—what would it feel like if I imagined I was in an elevator, sinking down to the center of the earth? Exploring that image and its sensations may also provide growth. Eventually I might find paradoxical experiences. Often the feeling of being heavily rooted is accompanied by a sense of extreme lightness in the body. These contrary sensations coexist quite nicely in a way that is very hard to describe. But focusing on exploration to discover new awareness and new dimensions in practice can help you make peace with paradox. Exploration is a wonderful antidote to frustration.

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Roslyn Levin
1 month ago

I also teach and practice tai chi having done so for almost 40 years. I too have noted the dichotomy you describe.

If I try and kick higher, for example, I lose the feeling of doing the tai chi, the flow, but if I visualize where I want my foot to go when I kick, whether I get there or not, the flow is there and it is beautiful.

So perhaps it is not thinking about the ways in which one wishes to improve the practice; but, feeling and imagining you are already there!

Greg Knollmeyer
25 days ago
Reply to  Roslyn Levin

Thanks for taking the time to write. I agree about feeling things being there. I tend to try to be in a state of exploration and wonder much of the practice time.

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