Calm Down

by Kim Ivy

I will always remember this past summer as the summer I fell apart in front of one of the finest martial artists in the world. Master Chen, Xiao Wang was giving me a lesson in his family style of Taiji, Chen Style. We had been working on a technique for two days within our private lessons and it was time for him to watch me, to see if I had retained it enough to progress on. He sat down and gave me his full attention.

I stepped left. I stopped. I turned my waist. I stopped again. A thick sludge of panic began to rise up towards my diaphragm. I shifted my feet into another position. I stopped again. “What an idiot I am!” I thought. “What kind of martial artist am I?” “He’ll never come back!” I started to move again but stopped. I had drawn a complete blank. My eyes filled with tears. I looked at him hoping for sympathy. He looked at me back. (It was not sympathetic). “He’s not going to give me a thing, is he?” I thought. I was doomed.

“Calm Down.” Master Chen said. It wasn’t the sweet “pull-a-blanket-over-your-shoulders-and-take-a-nap” sort of ‘calm down.” It was a firm “get- a handle-on- it-sister” sort of ‘calm down.’ Silence filled the room. Master Chen continued to sit as he turned his strong neck towards the window. (I’m sure at least a ½- hour went by during the next 10 seconds.) I knew it was now or never. Calm Down, I repeated to myself. Let go of the technique, let go of the humiliation, just calm yourself down.

Master Chen turned and looked back at me. His tiger eyes clear and non-judgmental, simply watching. I let out a breath. I repeated the instructions to myself, my life depending on it. Or at least this lesson. “Calm down,” I thought. My mind focused. My heart had a moment of peace. My body found the technique. I was rough and clumsy, but I stayed with it. “Yes,” Master Chen said. He gave me some minor corrections and unceremoniously went on to the next movement.

It probably didn’t matter what movements I learned after that. He had given me the lesson of a lifetime. Calm Down. Bring the mind down. Make the heart peaceful. Still the body. Allow the movements to emerge from that deep well. How simple. How relentlessly illusive.

When I tell this story, my friends say “we need to take this to Washington.” This is probably true. We need to take the calm-down medicine to Washington, To Iraq, To Israel, To Palestine. We need to take it to the streets of Harlem, to the Tacoma Hilltop. But first, we need to take it to our own minds, our own hearts.

The Chinese Character for Mind is the same as the character for Heart. The fluid bottom line with three dots above illustrates the joined heart and mind. The ‘there is no separation between the heart and the mind’ heart/mind. When I see this character, I am reminded that, like my lesson with Master Chen, our actions in the world are both the reflection and the result of whatever harmony our heart/mind can muster. In our world today, I am saddened. And I am hopeful.

In my practice now I begin by sinking my mind into my heart, then this heart/mind into my belly. I calm down. Then I move. As I move I ask, “ how may I move in this way within the broader world, amidst so much agitation?” How may I move from this belly, where the heart and mind live, unified and calm.

I think about the pebble dropped in the lake. Concentric circles ripple from the center it disturbed. How long it takes for the disturbance to mellow depends on the size of the rock dropped. But the lake itself does not rise up to fight the pebble. It simply experiences the movement. Then the lake’s true nature, reflecting the eagles and blue sky above, the fish below, returns. And the rock sits at the bottom swallowed up by the mud.

I wonder, “am I the rock or the lake?” How does the agitation in my own heart/mind disturb the energies around me? I wonder if I didn’t drop myself in that lake, or if I were a smaller rock, maybe the lake would remain calm. If my heart/mind were more peaceful, perhaps the world around me would calm down.

I will always remember this summer as the time I shared a meal with Master Chen. We sat at the dinner table eating food he cooked with the hands of a calm and generous heart. We laughed at his stories then we watched the Animal Channel-tigers, frogs, and butterflies living harmoniously, following their true nature.

In this global climate, perhaps calming down is a radical idea. But what if we did? What if we find that agitated place within ourselves and settle it down. What if we become not the rock, but the pure reflective lake?