Tai Chi as a Way of Life

Two days ago the U.S. Senate passed a bill targeting anti-Asian hate crimes, and yesterday there was a rally where I live in Holland, Michigan condemning anti-Asian violence.  I am, and we all should be, fully behind these efforts.  But I want to go beyond anti-anti-Asian hate; I want to encourage Asian appreciation.  I even considered titling this blog entry “spread Asian love,” which feels more positive than “stop Asian hate,” but then I thought that maybe it would sound too risqué or just too cheesy.  The fact is I have been an Asia-phile for as long as I can remember and the recent rash of anti-Asian sentiment pains me deeply.  I especially hate the fact that my beautiful, kind, smart Korean daughter is subject to stupid bouts of anti-Asian prejudice.  I want to counter this hate with love.

My love of Asian runs deep. I became enamored of Chinese culture ever since visiting my grandparents who lived in what was once New York City’s Little Italy but which, by the 1960’s, had become squarely part of an expanding Chinatown. My love of Asia led me to study and teach Asian philosophies for many years because I think it contains the most profound wisdom on the planet. I also founded and directed an Asian Studies program which allowed me the opportunity to co-lead a Japan May Term study tour about a half-dozen or so times. During this COVID period, when such travel is not happening, I can’t stop watching “Paolo from Tokyo“ and other Japan Vlogs on YouTube to sate my desire for all things Japanese. And I have practiced tai chi chuan for almost forty years now even though I still consider myself a beginner. It is the tai chi part that I want to focus on because it has been transformative.

I was attracted to tai chi primarily because it is beautiful.  As a slow, moving meditation it is a graceful vehicle of grace.  As a young philosopher, before tai chi, I was mostly bunched up in my neck and head, not unlike Rodin’s statue, The Thinker, but not quite as buff.  Like the statue, most of my life-energy seemed to be concentrated in the cranium, focused on a spot between the eyebrows.  It’s a very serious look for sure, but not very peaceful or graceful.  After tai chi this changed.  I became comfortable in my skin, at home in my body, and moved with more ease.  I even overcame my fear of dancing.  I experienced an embodied freedom that spilled over into a kind of psychological or spiritual freedom.  I think of tai chi as a bodily spiritual practice that itself embodies much of the wisdom of Chinese philosophy. 

One of the things I did as Director of Asian Studies was to start a program that hosted Chinese graduate students for a year of study of philosophy in the U.S.  One motivation for this program was the debt I felt to Cheng Man-ch’ing, the man most responsible for the spread of tai chi in the West and the teacher of the founder of the Tai Chi Foundation (https://www.taichifoundation.org/), the tai chi school I have studied with.  Professor Cheng was a very traditional Chinese gentleman who, in addition to tai chi, excelled at painting, poetry, calligraphy and Chinese medicine.  He also wrote on traditional Chinese philosophy.  Interestingly enough, although tai chi clearly embodies many principles of Daoist philosophy – gentleness, flowing movement, softness, balance of yin and yang, humility, etc. – Professor Cheng was primarily a Confucian.  Like many traditional Chinese thinkers (and the same could be said of traditional thinkers in Japan and Korea), he might be called a Neo-Confucian in that he incorporated Daoist and Buddhist insights into his overall Confucian outlook.  As a Neo-Confucian, Cheng emphasized the moral aspect of tai chi.  As his son notes in new video about him, The Professor: Tai Chi’s journey West:  “He was teaching tai chi as a way of life.” 

What is it about the practice of tai chi that informs a way of life?  For someone like Professor Cheng, it is primarily a vehicle for moral self-cultivation.  It is part of the effort at learning to improve oneself so one can be of service to others.  Its primary aim is to learn benevolence and compassion, to become fully human or humane or jen (ren 仁). How so? Confucianism emphasizes harmony and balance – within oneself, within society and between Heaven and Earth. Among the many things tai chi teaches, balance is fundamental. One learns to keep one’s balance, to remain centered, and to restore balance where needed.  One feels the feet and legs rooted to the earth and the head held by a string from the heavens.  As such, one stands balanced between heaven and earth, embodying a cosmic harmony.  We human beings need a connection to both heaven and earth, to the spirit as well as the body.  Tai chi encourages us to be grounded in the soil yet to also feel that our spirit is reaching towards the sacred.  There is one string linking us to earth and heaven.  As above, so below.  On earth as it is in heaven.  If this sense of harmony between heaven and earth is a kind of vertical balance, then the harmony maintained with one another, the social harmony, is our horizonal balance.  Cultivating the disposition to achieve physical balance leads to the disposition to seek societal balance.  Does one find imbalance or injustice in society?  Then we are disposed to act to right it.  In one’s personal life, the attainment of balance, as taught in the Confucian Doctrine of the Mean, is a kind of inner equilibrium.  When one is physically centered, one embodies the mean and can act more easily with moderation in all things.  Being centered, we find an inner stillness as the world swirls around us.  We can follow the swirling, but we need not let it overwhelm us.  It is a way to stay calm in the midst of activity, oftentimes chaotic.  And it enables one to respond instinctually in the right way rather than being pushed into over-reacting or reacting with force.  

Even though tai chi is a martial art, it teaches that one is never to react with force.  In this sense it is a way of non-violence.  And the way to achieve this is to let go of self.  How does one achieve this?  Relax, relax, relax.  Tai chi teaches that we must relax all physical tension in our body in order for qi or life-energy to flow freely.  Yet it is by relaxing that we also learn to let go of self as we drop our burdens, our past hurts, our emotional tension.  This is not just a way to diminish stress within oneself, but it is ultimately a way to relate to others.  Tai chi teaches that we must “invest in loss.”  “Be as selfless as melting ice,” writes Lao-tzu in the Daodejing.  To invest in loss, to practice selflessness, is to cultivate humility, not only in the sense of putting others before you but also in the sense of following others.  This is essence of tai chi push-hands practice.  We learn to follow our fellow push-hands player by listening through touch, by developing a kind of sensitivity to the other.  When empty of self-centered willfulness, you can open up and be present to what is before you – the coffee, the flower, the cypress tree in the garden, the other person, the situation at hand.  One learns to respond spontaneously without force knowing that gentleness defeats aggression, that softness overcomes hardness, that ultimately love wins.  In tai chi one learns to deflect any incoming force by simply shifting one’s weight and rotating.  One then becomes an empty space and force has no place to land.  How many situations in life might be neutralized if we emptied ourselves and deflected rather than struck back with force?  Tai chi teaches us how to turn the other cheek, literally, not so as to be a punching bag for others but to de-escalate and neutralize a potentially harmful situation.  And since the other’s force becomes energy that circles back to them, the aggression of the other becomes a teachable moment, imparting a lesson in karma, showing them that what goes around, comes around.  “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.”  So put down the sword or gun, or hate speech, or smallness of mind, whatever it is that is your weapon of choice. 

Confucianism also advocates a sense of social propriety and responsibility.  One is to act with a sense of decorum, not only because it makes one dignified but also out of respect for the dignity of others.  Part of this is respect for tradition, for the past, for one’s elders.  But it is also a sense of respect for what others in our lives are to us and do for us.  It is a way of showing gratitude by honoring what has been given to you by one’s community.  “Itadakimasu,” say the Japanese before each meal: “I gratefully receive.” This is kind of a social rite, whether one is religious or not.  The practice of tai chi functions like a rite or ritual.  It requires dedication and commitment.  It requires some seriousness.  As such it reflects a respect for tradition, for those in the art who came before you, and for those who presently engage in it with you.  I think the same attitude of respect, or serious concern or care for others, and of doing one’s best out of respect for the other, is needed today in order for us to flourish, both as individuals and as a society. 

I’d like to bring this reflection to a close with some quotations from Chinese philosopher, Wang Yangming, a 15th century Neo-Confucian.  Reminiscent of the opening position of the tai chi form, Wang writes, “Standing between heaven and earth, what dignity by body possesses.”  May the embodied sense of dignity one might learn from a bodily practice such as tai chi teach us to treat the self and others with utmost dignity and respect.  The final move of the tai chi form is called “entering the Dao,” a fitting description of that ultimate peace that Neo-Confucians believe is achieved when, through moral self-cultivation, one develops ren or humane loving-kindness.  As Wang writes, “The humane person forms one body with Heaven and Earth and all things.”  May the embodied sense of oneness with all things experienced in the practice of tai chi teach us to experience a shared sense of loving unity with all humanity.  And, in gratitude, may we especially continue to respect and learn from our Asian brothers and sisters.   

Spread Asian love. 

To dream the impossible dream…

Sabbaticals are one of the perks of the life of a college professor.  They allow one time to research and write and reflect in ways one usually cannot with a busy teaching schedule.  My current sabbatical, for example, has made it possible for me to explore this new venture of philosophical counseling and blog writing.  Covid has made travel out of the question, though, as well as the kind of thing I did during my previous sabbatical – find my way into a community theater production of Man of La Mancha.  The world of community theater deserves its own blog reflection, but I want to stick to philosophy for now, and Man of La Mancha actually keeps us there.  Inspired by Cervantes’s novel, Don Quixote, the musical play focuses not on the hero of the book, but on its author, Cervantes himself.  At once we are challenged by the age-old philosophical issue of appearance and reality.  Cervantes is a real historical figure, but he also appears as a character in a play.  Furthermore, in that play he will become the character — Don Quixote — he has created in the novel.  We have layer upon layer of appearance, of illusion, all done as theatre, itself a show of appearance that aims at portraying some portion of reality.  But like the imagined tales of Cervantes or the imaginings of Don Quixote, who sees himself as a chivalrous knight tilting at windmills as if they were giants, these appearances oftentimes show us truths that cannot otherwise be said. 

So, I was struck by what I took to be very philosophical elements in Man of La Mancha, beginning with its setting in a prison which is reminiscent of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave from the Republic.  In this Allegory, Plato depicts human beings as prisoners in a cave where they have been chained for life, facing a wall upon which they can only see shadows of what passes behind them.  So, all they (we) know are illusions until they (we) are able to break free of the chains, make the long, difficult journey toward the light, and finally see things as they really are.  But Plato warns that the prisoner who has broken free and returns to tell the others about what he has seen will be regarded as mad and likely harmed or even killed.  No doubt Plato has his teacher, Socrates, in mind here but we can find many examples throughout history of messengers of truth who are regarded as mad or harmful and eliminated by those who cannot see beyond their illusions.  This link between enlightenment and “divine madness” also finds its way into Plato’s Phaedrus, and it is the major theme of Man of La Mancha, as musical theater becomes a creative vehicle for the expression of philosophy.  For Don Quixote dares to see more than simply what appears on the walls of the cave, more than what exists in the prison cell.  His vision is such that he sees life not simply as it appears, but as it should be.  And for this reason, he appears mad to everyone else.    

This is how the character of Dr. Carrasco, a kind of 16th century psychiatrist, sees things.  For him, Don Quixote clearly is suffering from a mental malady, and a DSM diagnosis is in order — delusional disorder, perhaps? — and he must be treated for it.  But a philosophical counselor — Plato, for example? – might regard Don Quixote very differently.  He would know that in a crazy world, the seemingly crazy person is most sane.  Don Quixote’s divine madness enables him to invert (subvert?) the insane, broken world he lives in by seeing it not as it is but as it should be.  Don Quixote sees through the mundane world to a higher one.  He sees the ideal in the real, the beautiful in the ugly, the super-ordinary in the ordinary.  Aldonza, for example, is not a two-bit, bedraggled whore; she is Dulcinea, the beautiful, virtuous, ideal woman.  Don Quixote sees her as she could be, as she ideally is.  Don Quixote is the visionary philosopher who, through creative imagination, is able to elevate our existence by seeing it as a reflection of something higher and better, something it can become.  In this, he is reminiscent of Robert Kennedy, who famously said, “Some men see things as they are and ask, ’Why?’ I dream things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?’” But for Don Quixote, the dreams of his creative imagination are not of what never was, but of what truly is, if only we had eyes to see. 

Isn’t this just wishful thinking, one might ask, the peddling of illusion?  Some leftover 1960’s idealistic claptrap?  Perhaps.  But without such dreaming, such creative imagination, there is no hope.  Hope requires imagination of what could be.  Without hope there is no moving forward, there is no growth.  Yes, sometimes we see the idealized image of something or someone that is ultimately illusory.  Such false images keep us stuck and prevent our movement or growth.  They inevitably cause us harm when reality confronts us like a brick wall.  But the false image distorts reality.  It is the rose-colored lens that renders vision less clear.  Don Quixote, however, sees with more clarity not less, for he sees the ideal as the true potential of what is real.  He sees the reality for what it is.

And that’s why Dr. Carrasco, and all forms of therapy, need a bit more Plato.  Therapists and counselors (and teachers and parents and coaches, etc.) need to see clients not only as they present themselves but as they could be.  We all need to see ourselves as what we could be, or we are without hope.  But this is not dreamy idealism.  It is clear-eyed realism.  For nothing stays the same.  Everything, everyone, changes.  Aristotle, Plato’s student, shows how a thing’s true form or essence is embedded in its soul driving it to grow and become what it is meant to be.  Each thing has its potential, for each thing is what it will become.  A tadpole is a potential frog.  A kitten is a potential cat.  Aldonza is a potentially self-actualized woman.  This is how we help others to change for the better; by first seeing in them what they already potentially are. My former colleague, Caroline Simon, explained in her book, The Disciplined Heart: Love, Destiny and Imagination, that genuine love involves the imaginative ability of “seeing what may not wholly exist, but should” in the those we love.  When we see others charitably, through the eyes of love, we see their true selves, the self they are destined to be as self-actualized persons. 

Of course, things could always change for the worst.  Sometimes things fall short of their potential or they decay.  We suffer unnecessarily, though, when we see things, when we see ourselves or our world, as always falling short; when this kind of negativity is our default position.  Too often the negative perspectives become self-fulfilling prophecies.  Then they become the chains that keep us in Cervantes’s prison or Plato’s cave.  But we have a choice in how we see things.  We can change our perspective, can turn our minds around, to see that there is a way out of what binds us.  This is Don Quixote’s choice.  Like the philosopher in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, he is a prisoner who knows the way to be free and helps to free his fellow prisoners. 

Fearful?  Imagine yourself as courageous.  Anxious?  Imagine yourself calm and serene.  Depressed?  Imagine yourself happy.  In this way, imagination becomes a form of meditation, a kind of creative visualization.  Athletes use this all the time.  They imagine the golf swing, the high jump, the three-point shot, then they do it.  One might also imagine oneself as a person who has the qualities that are within you but have yet to fully emerge.  The ancient philosophers did something like this.  They might imagine themselves as Socrates, famous for his courage in the face of death, in order to overcome fear.  This is an old technique also found in the world’s religions.  Buddhist meditation often involves imagining oneself as the Buddha or a Bodhisattva, in full possession of all the virtues that are latent in oneself.  Christians might practice the imitatio Christi or imitation of Christ.  One might ask “What would Jesus do?” Or one might strive to be Christ to the world.  To paraphrase what is already a paraphrase of something Gandhi said, this spiritual practice of imagination is a way of becoming the change you want to see in yourself and in the world.  

Don Quixote is not a crazy person. He is a philosopher. He sees things as they could be. And that’s just another way, a more clear-eyed way, of seeing things as they are. He helps us to re-imagine ourselves so that we see may see ourselves differently and become the selves we potentially are. The world needs more Don Quixotes. We each need to find our inner Don Quixote, our inner philosopher, so that we may imagine our world and ourselves as we could be. And then we may become what we imagine.

With Don Quixote we can dream the impossible dream.  And then we might find that the dream is not impossible at all.  For the dream is simply the reality fulfilled.

Je suis Albert Camus

I write this blog on roughly the one year anniversary of the COVID-19 global pandemic. While there is hope that an end is in sight, the pandemic continues and a third wave threatens Europe and other places, including the state of Michigan where I live. And so the question naturally arises: what is the role of the philosopher during a global pandemic? There are many issues a philosopher might address: What is the scope and limit of government authority during a health crisis (lockdowns)? How do we balance our individual rights to autonomy with our obligations to our society and fellow citizens (mask-wearing)? What is a just distribution of limited resources (vaccines)? I am sure there are others.

I was thinking about this as my wife and I were watching our favorite TV channel, MHZ, which features international shows, largely Scandinavian detective mysteries. Having seen pretty much all of the Swedish, Danish and Norwegian fare, we started watching an Austrian show, Anatomy of Evil. The hero, Richard Brock, is actually a psychiatrist who does forensic work and likes to solve crimes. He’s a cynical, no-nonsense, tell-it-straight, world-weary type who’s seen it all and has suffered personal loss. He carries his suffering throughout each episode but this personal pain allows him to be sympathetic and it motivates him to work selflessly to serve others. He can’t bring himself to believe in God, though he envies the waiter at his favorite cafe who does. In one scene where he is walking alone in a misty evening with his grey overcoat collar turned up, Brock reminded me of a photo of the French existentialist philosopher, Albert Camus. It occurred to me that Brock is Camus. Indeed, the post-Christian European is Camus and has been for years. During a global pandemic, perhaps we are all Camus. Je suis Albert Camus. And it is as Camus, author of The Plague, that we might learn the role of the philosopher during this time in our lives.

So, in what ways are we Albert Camus? Camus was born in Algeria, at the time a colony of France. Although he was a French citizen, he was staunchly anti-colonial. Today we are all anti-colonial, post-colonialists, are at least we should be. We all are aware of the injustices of political oppression in all its forms, whether grounded in nationalism, racism, sexism, etc. We take for granted the way Camus and the French existentialists — Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone DeBeauvoir, particularly — saw the need for philosophers to weigh in on the lived experience of human beings and how they paved the way for the philosophical and subsequent social movements of the 1960s, movements that continue to reverberate today. As an anti-colonialist, and a leader of the French Resistance against the Nazi occupation of France, Camus was “woke” before the rest of us, and the more woke we become, the more we resist the threats to human freedom and dignity, the more we are Camus.

In The Plague, Camus speaks especially to this period of global pandemic. Faced with a plague that threatens the fictional town of Oran, the heroes of this novel seek not a political solution but more direct personal action: they must resist the spread of the plague while also doing all they can to alleviate immediately the suffering of the townspeople. Obviously, those infected need humane care but there is also the fear, anxiety, despair, isolation and longing for normality that everyone experiences. Camus shows us that plagues, that viruses occur; this is out of our control. For those who believe, it must be said that God has allowed this to happen, for what reason we do not know. For those such as Camus and the primary hero of the story, Dr. Rieux, who cannot believe in a God that allows the innocent to suffer, there is no reason forthcoming, nor is there waiting for divine assistance. We may pray to God for help, but we must try to save ourselves. “Trust in Allah,” the Muslim saying goes, “but tie your camel to the post.”

And so, in a time of plague, in a global pandemic, Camus seems to suggest, much like a Stoic, that we learn to do what we can and to accept what we cannot control. What is it that we can do? In addition to the obvious ways we might contribute our talents to the alleviation of physical suffering, we can also work on the alleviation of our internal suffering. We can do this by caring for our inner lives and caring for others. We can work on ourselves, and we can help others to work on themselves. In a period of lockdown and social isolation, as another French philosopher, Voltaire, advised in Candide, we can “cultivate our own gardens.” We can also help others cultivate theirs. And we can leave some of our tomatoes on their doorsteps. This can take the form of tai chi classes online, for example, as the Tai Chi Foundation (https://www.taichifoundation.org/) now offers. Or mindfulness sessions. Or therapy sessions. And when it is impossible to find a therapist, philosophical counseling sessions.

Perhaps the practice of philosophical counseling would be too bourgeois for Camus. But his writing does offer some philosophical counsel to his readers. Despite terrible outside forces, despite great odds, despite much that is out of our control, he counsels that we are free to resist, to fight back. We can’t know if we will be successful. But it is the effort that elevates us. We need not succumb to despair and resignation. Showing others that we have that freedom –over both outer and inner troubles — can be the role of the philosopher during times of distress. Even when the effort seems impossible, even pointless or absurd, as in the case of Sisyphus, who repeatedly rolls the stone up the hill only for it roll back towards him, it is in the effort that our dignity lies.

So, at least one role of the philosopher during a global pandemic is to help us to maintain our dignity. We do this by resisting fear and despair, by confronting them head-on, by asserting our freedom and independence from them even when they persist. For, like plagues and viruses, like all threats to our being, political and existential, they will persist. But the philosopher reminds us that we have it in us to be resilient, to find meaning and hope in what seems meaningless and, for a time, hopeless. As Camus says of his absurd hero, “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.” And so let us, too, imagine ourselves happy. Je suis Albert Camus.

The First Step

“The beginning of a long journey begins with a single step” (Lao-tzu). And so this blog begins with the first step. Let me introduce myself. I am Andrew Dell’Olio and I’ve been a professor of philosophy for about thirty years. In that time I’ve accumulated a lot of teaching experience and I’ve learned quite a bit about what we might call the wisdom traditions of the world, East and West. I’ve always thought that what is really valuable about philosophy, what drew me to it, is its practical benefit as a guide for living a good life and the achievement of peace of mind. We know from historians of philosophy such as Pierre Hadot and Martha Nussbaum that the ancient philosophers understood philosophy precisely as a way of life, the art of living, whose aim was self-development or virtue and the relief, ultimately, from psychological suffering. As Epictetus the Stoic wrote, “Empty is that philosopher’s argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated.” And so I aim with this blog and with this new practice of philosophical counseling to bring relief, in some small way, to the suffering of others.

Keeping with the theme of the first step, I see this blog as a kind of walk through the woods, oftentimes without a clear destination until an opening appears, something like Heidegger’s pathways into thinking. As such it might ramble at times before it finds its way. I’ll offer reflections on what comes to mind, sometimes directly related to philosophical practice, sometimes on what I am reading or what is happening in my life or in the world. Throughout I hope to bring the perspectives of those philosophers who have travelled this path before us to bear on what may be our personal issues and the collective issues of the day.

So, if you, too, are a fellow traveller down these paths, I hope you will join me on this journey and I hope you will find these musings helpful. I look forward to walking with you and also hearing your thoughts. “Begin, be bold, and venture to be wise” (Horace). See you on the road.

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