One’s Whole Life

“Your father taught you, your brother taught you, but you had many years on your own,” I asked Chen Xiao Xing toward the end of our morning session. “How did you learn to know how to feel when it was right?” “下功夫,” he replied, “You need to work hard and try.” He continued, with a quiet fierocity, “I wanted to figure it out.” He used the term 拚命 meaning “I threw my whole life into it.” This term means much more than simply to practice a lot, it means to throw one’s whole life, one’s entire being, into the quest. “At first my mind and my body were not connected but gradually through hard practice I felt what was right.” He gestured by moving his hands down across his entire body. “It’s like anything, it can’t just be the teacher teaching you something,” he stated clearly. “The student must go get the books and study and learn and figure it out. It can only happen through endless practice. “You have to think!” Chen Xiao Xing exclaimed vigorously. “What are they teaching you?” “For example, at first, they say, ‘everything has to go together.’ And yet you can’t do it, so ask yourself, what does that mean? You have to take what your teachers teach you and figure it out for yourself.” 

“Yesterday you talked about “Gradual Realization” I said. “What about “頓悟 - Sudden Realization?” I pointed to the words on the blackboard. He smiled and said, “You practice what you learn, what your teacher teaches, over and over and then one day.....” Chen Xiao Xing widened his eyes and exclaimed, “AH!” “It’s the light bulb going off!” I eagerly added, putting my hands over my head, and poofing my fingers wide to mimic a light turning on. He did not need Shiuwen to translate. “对, Duì“ -“Right!!” He said. “But then it goes out again.” I further mused. “Turn it back on!” We all laughed. Our group’s bulbs have certainly flickered on and off and on again this trip!

Chen Xiao Xing’s wife, 譚莹, has been on the floor with us this training, leading the repetitions after our teacher instructs. She is helping our newest student Lisa a great deal and is very kind to all of us. “The looser the better!” She says somewhat demurely as she describes the hips, and then melts into a low stance elegantly, naturally, I’ve been on the floor with her before - she has been studying in Chenjiagou for seven years, but this is the first time we made a connection. Her form has become beautiful and strong and Grandmaster corrects her unflinchingly. I asked her after class yesterday, “How can you take those corrections???” “Endurance!” She replied without hesitation.  

She told us her story. “I was in a car accident over 11 years ago.” She began. “I was in and out of the hospital for six months in that first year after.” She continued to describe that she could not walk upright due to a serious back injury. The doctors told her she would likely be crippled when she was older and Taijiquan might help. She began learning in Yunnan where she lived. After three years she could walk up right again. She knew then if she could become skilled at Taijiquan it wouldn’t just help her but she might be able to help others. After another year she left for Chenjiagou to find Chen Xiao Xing. She didn’t think he would take her as a student but she wanted to try. He was teaching overseas when she arrived so she waited a month for him to return and practiced. “When other people were chatting,” I just practiced. “If they did it one time, I did it ten times.” When Chen Xiao Xing arrived back he did take her as a student. The rest she said, referring to them becoming husband and wife, “Was Karma!” 

Yi Mei invited her teacher, Chen Zi Qiang, his wife Cui Bing and several of the other family members and me out for dinner for her last night in Chenjiagou. We went to the nice restaurant down the road, just outside of the main area. It was an evening of great food and family, with the smallest kids running around playing hide and seek behind the thick pleated curtains in our private eating room. Plates of food kept coming while we all chatted easily with one another in English and Chinese. Chen Xiao Xing’s oldest Grandson who we met in Slovenia last year speaks perfect English. He is an exhubarent 17 year old now who leaves for a University in Beijing next month.

This got Cui Bing, Yi Mei and me into a conversation about the cost of living. It’s about $3300 a year for him to attend University there. They were all shocked when I quoted figures for US education. We compared health care costs and the cost of housing in our respective countries too. And then I could not help but whisper to Yi Mei, “so what ARE they saying in your country about the hot political topic between our countries?” She smiled, “some say its crazy, some say well....!” “Yep! The same for us!” We both laughed at the absurdities we live in and took some more mouthwatering chicken. Yi Mei’s Taijiquan is beautiful and powerful too. Over the week she has shared with me some of her life experiences, both personal as well as living in Russia during the break up of the Soviet Union.  “It was a very difficult time” she said introspectively, “but we survived.”

It is a mistake to believe the high level of Taijiquan we see in many of the people we encounter here in Chenjiagou is because one must be lucky, or “borne into it.” Or started young, or any number of other things we tell ourselves about others who have skill that appears unattainable to we “normal people.” Of course, one naturally has certain inclinations or advantages based on one’s life circumstances, but in the end skill progression is not that. Believing it is simply one of the ways we keep ourselves separated from our own potential. Perhaps adversity actually fuels the progress, or perhaps better stated, the fuel is in the choices one makes in how to deal with with the cards one is dealt. In the end, the truth, and one every day of this training has spoken to me, is that all answers are found in practice and also are found in the courage to throw one’s life into it, whatever that means to each of us.

A rooster crows. Soon the cook will arrive. Day ten ensues.