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Tai chi: Practicing the Present

Posted by on August 18, 2012

My trainer and I arrived at the tai chi school mid-morning. Last time I showed you a few pictures of what this mountainside martial art boarding school looked like. After dropping my stuff in my room, my trainer took me back outside to begin. Not wasting any time.

On the other side of the street was a large, cement slab where students and teachers practiced:

where much of the training took place

I came all this way for this, but I gotta admit that I was a bit unnerved about starting. I remember thinking, “Uh, can’t we do this after lunch?” I quickly found it was easier to talk about doing tai chi on the storied mountain on which it all started, than it was to actually get out there and do it. This truth affects us in many endeavors we wish to undertake, doesn’t it?

Tai chi mimics actual fighting moves, but are slowed way down. My trainer began by showing me a simple choreography:

Tai chi is said to be healthy. It’s also a meditative challenge. Here’s a link to the Wikipedia page if you’re intrigued:

Not 15 minutes after I put my bags in my room was I face to face with this challenge. And for me it was a fairly intense one because there’s just no “escape”. The idea is to be as present as possible, as present as you are watching the seconds tick down in a close football game. Focus on the movement of your body (the slow, smooth movements); don’t drift off into thinking about that TV you saw last night or what your friend did the other day or what you’re going to do afterwards. Other martial arts may have appeased me from the start with quick, distracting movements, satisfying a short attention span.

But not tai chi.

I’d have to just be “there”; me and my trainer. And knowing the schedule they kept—hours and hours of this each day working on repetitive movements again and again….and again–a part of me had that whiney, “I want to go in!” kind of thinking. But “go in” where? To my quiet room? This wasn’t a health club class that you could look forward to fleeing. Even if I did look ahead to the end of this morning’s session, there’s another one this afternoon. After this afternoon’s session, there’s another this evening. And as soon as you wake up in the morning—at 5:30—there’s another. AHHH! I can’t wait until three days from now! Then I can go back into the city and…..and what, Brandon? Watch TV? Surf the net? Focused on that, what would you make of your meantime here?–always wanting for “three days from now”?

BAM! Wake up, Brandon. This is the present and tai chi is going to slam it right in your face. How a subtle art like tai chi can slam anything is a wonder, but so is the magic of Eastern thought and practice.

It was sobering, but once getting comfortable, it was the beginning of a practice I’ve worked to maintain since. It helped solidify a way of seeing my life, a way that lessens the trap of living in the past, for the future, wrapped up in the mind. It put before me loud and clear the initial pain, but voluminous blessings of staying present, reshaping my outlook and changing the defaults status of my racing mind.

After my solo lesson, it was group time. Here were some other students and teachers at my school:

This was one of our trainers.

I was amazed at the how “kinetic” they were. So with it…so conscious of their movement. We in the West exercise, but we like to do it with headphones and even conversation. These guys seemed to truly be one with their body.

Here’s me giving it a whirl:

I attended a summer music camp back in high school. We rehearsed with this involved, focused presence, only a few days to master our music for a performance at week’s end. These rehearsals were different than regular band class during the school year. There, we were more likely to clock-watch and wait for that bell to ring so we could get away. I think we were mostly relieved when the hour ended because rather than having to put forth our attention and energy into the music, we could drift off into the lazy daze of horse play and daydream.

I also think the difference between that exciting, intense camp and the boring, drawn-out school year was a degree of time. Knowing that we had just a few days at camp made us present and allowed us to wring every moment out of each hour. The school year, by contract was, well, a year. So it seems the tidbits of time, the portions that are allotted, are often better used. Think about how focused and present you get when you go to a retreat, camp, or seminar.

But what then of the prospect of an open-ended amount of time, like say, the prospect of our life?! Well, shoot. Who hasn’t idled away an afternoon (or longer) awaiting the evening, weekend, or upcoming vacation? Who hasn’t measured their schedule in weeks and months and forgotten about the imminent hours?

So in the spirit of wringing life out of each moment, I shook off my initial hesitation and got started with the tai chi training here on a mountaintop in Hubei province:


Next time, I’ll show you what life was like up here when we weren’t on the cement slab.


have an awesome, present week,



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