After less than satisfactory results at a Tai Ji competition I realized that part of the problem was that I had been trying to please my teacher and trying to impress the judges. Instead I should have focused on the experience.
The ironic thing is that three days before I’d been part of a few chosen (or asked) to give a demonstration to the press to advertise the upcoming competition. The mayor was supposedly going to show up and it was going to be a very big deal. Most of us got there way to early but we found a bench under some shade to sit on and my friend had bought tea and we spent our waiting time relaxing. It reminded me of times when I used to spend more time relaxing. Not working in a relaxing environment but just relaxing, enjoying the peace of what was around me. This was much the same. We all practiced a little bit, relaxed some more and then when it came time for the actual demo it was so easy. At one point I dragged my foot over an edge and my shoe came off my foot but it was all right, I carried on and enjoyed the expression of my art.
Wanting to win
During the competition I was far from relaxed. Worried about being at my court at the right time and waiting for the person with all of my registration kit I hung around and did everything but relax. One thought that was dominant was wanting to win. And another thought was of pleasing my teachers and putting a show on for everyone who might have been watching.
I think the best thought would have been simpler and a lot easier to implement. Relax and then do the best tai ji that I was capable of and enjoy doing tai ji and whatever came after that.
It put me in mind of one time where I could have put myself under a lot of pressure but didn’t.
Relaxing instead of stressing
I was at the airport in Hawaii with a girl I’d met and we were in the process of saying goodbye. On the off chance that we could have an extra half day together she was going to see if she could get on the same flight as me. It would mean a lot of rerouting and the desk agent’s first reaction was “no way.” I didn’t want to get my hopes up but I thought it would be nice if we did get a few extra hours together. If not this would be goodbye. I decided to leave it to higher powers. Molly gently persisted with the gate agent and I went to sit down.
Rather than waiting I felt like I was just sitting, enjoying the peace of sitting. It took some doing on the gate agent’s part but Molly and I got our extra half day together as well as a shared flight to San Francisco. All I had to do was sit down and trust, knowing what I wanted.
True expression is feeling the energy within us, unaffected by what is without us, (or if it is affected it is because we are tuned in to the same source) By focusing on trying to impress we disassociate from ourselves. It’s like thinking about what is ahead at the expense of what we can see and experience right now. It’s like thinking about corners we can’t even see or not looking at where we are going. As a result we are not unified with what we are doing.
Why was I doing Tai Ji? For myself, because I wanted to express myself and because I liked it. If I truly wanted to impress the judges the thing that would touch them the most, the most truthfully would be if I truly did express myself, feel myself, and know that really I am doing it for myself...And then it wouldn’t have mattered if I did well or not.
And if I did want to do better, then for the next competition I would have to learn what they were looking for, the framework that they were working in, learn that till it was a part of me, so that I could express myself freely within it. And then, during the next competition, express myself within the framework that I had learned.
When we practice, that is the time to listen and to learn and to figure out the boundaries but then in competition we test ourselves by expressing ourselves as if the boundaries are a part of us, within us. We don’t have to think about it, we move within it. The idea is a part of us. And that’s when true self shines out.
Waiting at the airport, I knew what I wanted, and I allowed it to happen. That’s possibly a good reason for practicing, or a why for practicing, practicing until we know the idea of what we are trying to do, like practicing yoga and tai ji to the point we can feel our body and then being able to imagine the feeling of our body in any pose we like, even the ones we haven’t done before.
A girl I dated once asked me to tell her my truth. Discussing our relationship she didn’t know who I was or what I wanted. If we were dancing together she was doing all of the work. Because I was not expressing myself she had nothing to pull or push against. No means of transmitting information. Had I pressed outwards, had I been able to express myself we would have connected and danced. As it was, I was just along for the ride.
At the time I was asked I wasn’t quite sure what my truth was. I’d forgotten where I came from. I’d forgotten the things I loved.
To express ourselves we need to know what the idea is that we are trying to express (or the idea that we are trying to learn) and so we look within ourselves first.
The truth is something that comes from within us, from our heart, our center. It is not based on our fears. It’s not based on what we think someone wants to hear. Rather it is what we feel and think and know. It’s an expression free of worry or the desire to impress.
Trying to impress people we restrict ourselves to actions we think they’ll like and so we limit ourselves artificially.
Recognizing the real limits we can dance freely within them. There is limitations, in the shape of the dance its choreography, or the rules of society, but those are the limits we dance within, everything else is (an abomination) a hindering of our expression, of our self.
Letting our expression come from within then we are being true to ourselves, expressing the part of ourselves that is beyond time and space. We connect to something bigger that ourselves and our expression is pure...spirit.
It’s as if we are connecting to ourselves, dancing with ourselves, consciousness directing the energy of our expression outwards.
And so we dance, the more we know the idea, the better it is a part of us, the less we are limited, the less we need to be limited, the freer we become.
Giving without condition
Along time ago while I was still an engineer I used to bake cookies and take them to work for everyone to enjoy. It started off because I was trying to get the attention of a woman I liked. I wanted an excuse to talk to her. But the cookie giving in itself, I would leave them at a common table for everyone to help themselves to. A true gift from my heart. And even when people where rude about it, “Hey Neil, where’s the cookies...” it didn’t matter. And perhaps the way I saw it was as a complement, they liked my cookies. But one day a friend suggested I limit who takes them, give them out only to the people who truly appreciated them (and me). So I did that and kept them at my desk and emailed the desirables. When anyone came by I wasn’t at my desk and as a result no one took any cookies.
I tainted my gift. When we truly express ourselves, we give freely to everyone, without limitation. Free of the need to watch who sees us, free to be ourselves.
Trying to impress someone is like trying to control their expression, their choice, instead of being ourself.
The framework is the script, or the choreography, everything else is ourselves, our truth, our beauty.
Ruled by fear
An ex-girlfriend thought that she had to have a certain level of decorum around me, that she had to act a certain way, that certain things were expected of her, a particular way of acting.
The shame of it was I liked the person she was better when she was with her coworkers, when she was herself. Was it a function of me that she couldn’t be her true self around me? Isn’t that what love is, sharing your truth with the person you love, sharing each others truths.
It is ironic that sometimes the people I am most open with are people I know I will not get involved with. Unfortunately, when it is someone I like, I don’t share my truth. I tighten up for fear of scaring them away or pushing them away. Or I believe I have to act a certain way in order for them to like me. And yet if anything might draw them towards me it is me expressing my truth. And maybe that’s the truth of the matter, I am afraid of getting close to someone.
Tightening up we stop being free. It’s as if we lose our flexibility, our elasticity. We restrict the flow of energy, the flow of truth. Likewise when we are afraid or when we allow our fears to rule us.
Feeling all of the brush stroke
Practicing oriental calligraphy I went through a stage, without a teacher, where I thought that to brush a beautiful line all I had to do was focus on the beginning and the end of each brush stroke and connect the two, as quickly as possible. But something was missing. Several months later when I was working with a teacher I found out that what was missing was consciousness in-between those two points.
Whether I brushed quickly or slowly, I needed to feel the brush every movement of the stroke. And that’s what can make painting such a wonderful process, feeling the brush as it slides across the paper. Feeling the consistency of the ink. Greasy and a little sticky, too watery and a little dry. Even being able to feel the bristles, whether they are aligned with each other or twisted. And knowing that the brush is running dry but slowing down the next few strokes to eke the last bits of ink out and still paint a beautiful character. Effortlessly emptying the glass so that it can be filled again.
Beauty is expressed when we are conscious throughout all parts of the expression, conscious of the brush stroke from the beginning all the way to the end.
It generally occurs when we focus on the experience rather than trying to impress (or worry) about what others think.
Learning How to Relate
When I first started to learn how to use a sword in my Tai Ji practice I was keen to show off at any given opportunity. Getting a chance to display my martial prowess infront of some colleagues and a girl I liked, the girl I liked left before I started my demo. But I did it anyway. The others hung around and afterwards the head instructor asked me why practice martial arts with a sword? Why did I do it and why did people in general do it?
I thought that it was a way to practice relating to something outside of ourselves. Not that a sword could replace a person but it is a whole lot simpler than a person and a lot more constant and so a good tool to learn how to relate. Because it was so constant any failings to relate would be entirely the users fault and so we could learn. And even though it is constant it is not something to take for granted because even the other day, after having practiced for at least a year I found myself not relating. Why, because I was neglecting to feel the sword. And I think that is why we do Tai Ji with a sword, to learn how to feel what is outside of ourselves, and to always stay aware of what is outside of ourselves as well as what is inside of us.
Practicing with a sword that is sharp
Imagine practicing with a sword that is sharp. We’d always have to be aware of where it is in relationship to ourselves (and what is around us.). And perhaps that is something about relationships, knowing how to be in one, and also knowing when it is time to take a rest so neither party gets hurt.
I know myself well enough to know that I would have to be at my best to consider practicing with a sharp sword. And especially because I would be practicing with such a device that is when I would need to be the most relaxed, the most aware.
Tightening up we hinder our ability to feel and our ability to change smoothly. Relaxed and awake that is when it is best to relate.
The right time to ask
While I was still an engineer one of the things I took pride in was the fact that I thought I got along with the people I liased with to get things done. I tried to find the middle ground where we got what we needed without undue strain on other parts of the organization. One aspect of relationship that I was dimly aware of was that there are good times to ask someone for something and then there are inopportune times. Perhaps this was an occasion for me to test that theory.
I had the feeling that when I asked Jack if we get some test devices built by a certain date that it was the wrong time to ask him. Just before his early morning coffee. And off course I was right. Despite that I was still upset at his reaction and went to the bathroom to cry. Didn’t he realize that I was trying to do my best to help everybody? I realized my mistake, or affirmed what I knew to me true. The funny thing is that later on when I saw him again he apologized for his outburst.
It’s as if we both saw the light in each other.