The Work

The sound of rain wakes me again this morning at about 3:45 am. I try to fake sleeping for another hour or so while I listen to the large drops hit the metal roof outside our dorm room. It’s a bit before 5 when I finally get up, gather my tea and Ipad and head downstairs to the large room where we eat. A small lizard scampers under my feet at the bottom of the stairs. This room is the only place I can sit to write; there are no desks or chairs in the sleeping room save for one short round stool in the corner.  The dorms in Chenjiagou are not designed for sitting!  I love my morning routine here, I’m never sure who reads my blogs or what they might mean to people save for a unique travel story, but they help me to decompress and reflect from the day before. I’m still sometimes surprised I have spent an entire lifetime involved in martial arts; sometimes I think I might do something else, but no, there is nothing else for me. It is not just the athleticism I enjoy, it is more, this has always been my path for deep contemplation of the inner and outer worlds. 

This particular trip has been more social than my other visits. I think part of this is Summer. It’s an expansive time generally. Also I’ve been here enough now that many of us, students, shop owners, teachers, have a shared history that spans well over a decade. Too, I think the social aspect as also been fueled my renewed efforts to learn Chinese. I frankly didn’t think 2 months of daily practice using apps would make much of a difference, but it has.  I can’t have deep conversations but I can ask where people are from, answer where I am from, talk about the weather, make sure I understand time and food and the best - tell people they look beautiful. I can even make a couple of jokes. It makes a difference! Although, with the tones one must be vigilant! I tripped over one the other day and ended up saying the F word to one of the shop owners. Thankfully everyone started laughing knowing this silly American was just being clumsy. 

Everyone is getting stronger and bodies are holding up. Doug and I are the oldest in our group at almost 62. Lisa at 33 is the youngest. Everyone else ranges from the mid thirties to late fifties. It is a lot to put the body/mind though, one that is not used to this pace and depth of training, but we are all doing fine. Our group is harmonized and I’m really proud of everyone’s training ethic, especially Lisa, who has only nine months of experience with Taijiquan. Even though she is Chinese, has travelled all over the world a great deal and is a fierce woman by anyone’s standards, she has never having encountered herself in this way before. She is representing! We did take a much needed half-day break yesterday. We spent time in the Taijiquan park, wandering through the Temple, the statues of the 13 Energies, the Graves and the museum.  It was hot as heck and sparsely touristed so we could be a little more goofy, with the exception of course while Posturing in front of Chen Wang Ting. 

Doug and I visited Chen Bing, saw the beginnings of his new school and had some tea. He is really busy with the school and travel and does not teach group classes here anymore, just private lessons and special event workshops. We talked about the changes of Chenjiagou; more and more I hear what a mixed bag it is for the long time folks here and their preference might have been for the Gou to have remained a Farming & Taijiquan Village. “It was easier to keep a quiet mind then,” Chen Bing said. I also feel a bit of the challenge of keeping a quieter mind this trip. Part of it is certainly the fact that I am with people I have known a long time and it is quite simply fun to be with them.  Yet it is undeniable there is a energy of the place that has shifted. 

Within the training hall however, the work is to have all distractions dissolve. How the Gou has changed, what else I might have or have not done with my life, how many flies are landing on my sweat as it runs down my face.  This job of deep focus, no matter what is going on on the outside, lays firmly on each person. This place is still a pressure cooker for that work. I credit this fact to Grandmaster Chen Xiao Xing’s continued efforts to hold an unflappable center, no matter what is going on in the Gou or in the World. More and more I see this strength of his mind and how he, both as a Taijiquan Grandmaster and a human being, has been able to stay steady throughout the course of his life. Every day I walk into the school and see the students training, see how the school has grown through the time I have known it, see how he himself, both his sons, Chen Zi Qiang and Chen Zi Jun, his nephew Chen Bing, have been able to work so hard here in China and by traveling all over the world to teach authentic Taijiquan, as well, to help all of us who also teach others have grown, I know it stems from this man’s steady root planted deeply here, in the Gou. 

In one of our conversations I asked my teacher, “How did you and your family figure all this out?” Referencing the depth of Taijiquan. I was worried he would take it as one of my silly questions, but it was gnawing on me so I risked having Shiuwen translate it for me. He answered directly and sincerely, “It’s the mind.” “Many people have failed,” he continued, “a few have succeeded, but it is nothing compared to the mind of the Ancestor (referring to Chen Wang Ting) who originally figured it out.” I did not fully comprehend all this thirteen years ago when I became a disciple of Chen Xiao Wang but the mind element of my training is becoming more clear. One must truly work to open the mind, not attach to anything specific and yet rigorously adhere to certain rules. It is the most challenging paradox. One must embrace it fully, and then one must practice and practice and practice. And wait.

This trip, the second this year, comes at a good time for me after two years of huge changes in my life: the sudden death of my mother, turning 60, deciding to change my school location and more, it has all been very hard and admittedly has distracted me from the level of training I want for myself. But being here again, receiving the level of corrections and training and insight I am given, I see again I am very much a part of this specific tradition. It’s good to drink again from that well, dig again into that root and to reaffirm again my commitment to my physical practice and especially to my mental training. 

The morning light is opening, the roosters call. The cooks are peeling and chopping. Someone is humming. Day eight ensues.