In late fall 1994, I arrived early for my kung fu training lesson with Sifu Joseph. Walking up the winding 1,000-foot driveway to his earth-berm house, I gazed out into the grassy meadow and witnessed something that would change the direction of my life forever. Surrounded by the majestic backdrop of the Cascade Mountains and the shimmering aura of Lake Chelan, I was hypnotized by the melodic flow as Sifu Joseph moved effortlessly through what I would later learn was the Yang-style long form of tai chi.
I had never seen this side of Joseph before. Granted, I was a fairly new student and hadn’t known him very long, but this was a radical shift from what I had experienced when training with him thus far. It was common for us to start a training session with 1000 straight punches or perhaps endless repetitions of Filipino Sinawali, leaving my hands blistered or my knuckles bleeding from contact with the sticks. Training with Joseph was often a volatile collection of intensive rants, exhaustion, and spontaneity. So let’s just say that watching this powerful mass of energy being harnessed and focused into an angelic conductor was truly a new perspective.
I was walking over to greet Joseph and asked him about his tai chi. With this seemingly simple question began one of the most thought-provoking lessons I had ever had with him. For the next couple of hours, Joseph and I hiked together as he introduced me to tai chi.
“How long have you known tai chi?” I asked
“I will never ‘know’ it”, Joseph replied and then explained that tai chi mirrored life itself, that tai chi was about the experience, not the knowing.
He could tell that I was puzzled, as this was a completely new perspective to me, so he continued.
“Does the knowing have anything to do with the experience?” he asked and then proceeded to answer his own question. The knowing and the understanding come before and after the experience in such forms as expectations and reflections. Only the experience is real; everything else is perspective.
Continuing with his dissertation, Joseph said that, yes, we learn about intent, posture, chi, yielding, relaxation, and so on. We are told stories of the great and wise Chinese masters, such as Yan, Chen, Wu, and Hao. We learn the names of such positions as single whip, snake creeps down, and cloudy hands, but only the experience of doing tai chi has true meaning.
Joseph’s analogy between life and tai chi continued. “As in life, we have a past, present, and future; but it’s always the ‘now’ that we are experiencing. One doesn’t practice living; one simply lives. I don’t practice tai chi – I do tai chi. How else can it be?” Joseph professed.
After listening to his lecture, still confused, I finally exclaimed, “I would like to learn tai chi, but how can I learn it when you say that I can never know it?”
Joseph told me that he could teach me the tai chi form, but it was only in the doing of it that true knowing and understanding would come into play.
Even more confused and somewhat irritated by all of Joseph’s contradictions, I proclaimed, “With all due respect, you just said you would never know it! Now, you’re saying that experiencing tai chi is to really know tai chi? How can you say both ‘never’ and ‘always’ about the knowing?”
Seeing my obvious bewilderment and frustration, Joseph patiently replied, “Enough discussion; let’s train.”
We then spent the next hour or so going over a sequence called “cloudy hands.” Joseph was very detailed and patient as he walked me through the mechanics of the movement. I was surprised at the amount of detail he taught me, including maintaining correct posture, breathing, and calmness. I was thinking that for a person who claimed not to “know” tai chi, Joseph seemed to be vastly knowledgeable about it.
At first, the movement seemed a bit tedious and awkward, but after a while they felt more natural. We repeated cloudy hands several times and then we walked again, enjoying the last moments of sunlight and shadows. When we reached the top of Pine Hill, overlooking Lake Chelan, Joseph requested that I stay there alone and repeat the cloudy hands movement. Then we’d meet back up at the house when I had finished.
There I stood, with the last moments of the day’s sunlight warming my face, my body relaxed and supple as if moving within a gentle breeze. My breath emptied and filled, deeply inhaling and exhaling. As my body flowed through cloudy hands, I was overwhelmed with a sensation of joy, pure and complete. I was truly lost in the moment, as if time stood still.
It has been twenty plus years since my first experience of tai chi. Now I too realize that I will never “know” tai chi but I will experience if for the rest of my life.