Many years ago in Santa Barbara, I studied with a spare, elegant, bird-like tai chi master named Fu Yuan Ni. Thinking of him recently, I discovered that he is still alive and living in Taiwan and will soon be 100 years old. I also discovered some brief interviews with him, conducted and lovingly compiled by another of his students. In that material were many revelations that I myself have come to during tens of thousands of hours of practice since.
One of these insights is that despite the emphasis on relaxation, breathing, meditation, martial techniques, traditional weapons as training tools, partner practice, Chinese medicine, and Taoist philosophy, and despite the fact that we build strong legs, improve our concentration, and help beat back the degenerative diseases of aging, in the end, tai chi is all about sensitivity.
In our culture, sensitivity has come to mean a caring father, a man who asks a woman about her feelings, a person who listens more carefully when others disagree with him, or an individual who is deeply disturbed by injustice and keenly aware of the suffering of others.
Certainly, I can relate to that last definition. I have always had trouble with the suffering of any living creature. Recently, I encountered a fish vendor at a street market in Luang Prabang, Laos. His fish were laid out on a table for all to see, and while most were cloudy-eyed and quite dead, one was clear-eyed and gasping for air. I considered buying it and walking it down to the river to release it but was told that it had been out of the water too long to survive. The image of its agony still haunts me.
The sensitivity that comes from tai chi, however, is not only compassion. It is sensitivity to natural and biological cycles, the flow of energy, tiny shifts and changes in atmosphere (both meteorological and metaphorical) and a heightening of those functions that reveals the world in new ways. Remember, our experience of life may be a function of our mind, but that mind is informed by our sensorium, specifically by the information that comes in through our five (or more) senses.
If you turn out the lights in the room you’re in right now and seal the windows with lightproof tape, you will be immersed in darkness, and your world will be considerably constrained. True, you may be able to hear neighbors talking next door, sirens wailing or birds chirping outside, steam pipes clicking or roaches rustling in the walls (I hope not), but there will be less of the room to engage you than there is with the lights on, when you can see the furniture, maybe some artwork, maybe a few knickknacks, or your office equipment. If you were a fruit bat, however, even with the lights off and in total darkness, your world would be three dimensional, and rich with texture, depth, and detail. You would see heat given off by your coworkers, family, or guests, and you would see the flight path of flies and moths. You would see the walls not as flat surfaces, but as detailed mosaics rife with tiny hills and valleys.
What we detect of the world outside — not to mention all our interior processes, phases, and workings — is only a tiny fraction of what is there. Be it sound waves we can’t hear, light waves we can’t see, rumbling geological beats we can’t feel, or quantum vibrations we simply cannot sense, a sea of energy surrounds us. Learning to feel the air about us as if it were water, to literally swim standing up, is just one way in which we can train ourselves to know more of our world. Becoming aware of the fact that we respond to pheromones, that our likes and dislikes are fully as dependent upon the “smell” of others as by their actions, we find life full of greater nuance and depth than we thought possible. That attribute, a deeper experience of life, is the real reason we can benefit so mightily from mind/body practices like tai chi.