Fans whirl inside of Grandmaster’s room. One’s cadence is a bit out of sync with the other two, it’s beat sounds like a horse drawn carriage rolling down a cobble road, the clump clump clump of the horse’s shoes finding purchase on the uneven stone surface. My mind wanders. I find myself on a movie set in Tombstone, Arizona dressed in period garb, sitting in the coach exploring the new world. I wander further back in time and consider what life would be like as Claire in the Outlander novels, touching the Stone and being catapulted back several hundred years into old Scotland. The roaring of the cicadas brings me back to the room, to one of a dozen students Standing. Grandmaster puts his hands on my hips and lowers me straight down. My thighs let me know I’m in no movie set now. He puts his hands softly on my shoulders and I feel myself settle into the thousands year old earth beneath the black and white speckled floor.
Most of us are used to the Chen family’s signature 30 minute Standings. Well, one never gets “used” to them, but we embrace them as part of the practice, as part of what is required within the training. We know the corrections we receive then are precious metal for our Taijiquan development, but that certainly doesn’t mean they become any easier as the years go on. Somewhere in the past three days the notion of a 40 minute Standing emerged - basically, get to class early and start. So of course we all take up that challenge, just to add a little spice to an already challenging environment. “Why is it so painful?” Shiuwen asked Chen Xiao Xing at a break, “I can only stand after you correct me for 2 minutes!” Chen Xiao Xing chuckled, his face opening into his mischievous smile. “Probably only one minute!” He laughed. Shiuwen and I decided during the afternoon session we were going to count after our correction and see how long we actually can bear it. And who says Taijiquan people aren’t competitive!
“The reason I have you Standing for that long,” Chen Xiao Xing said, “is not just for the physical correction.” “It is to train the mind to come into the body.” “Most people cannot stand it,” he continued. “When you practice Taijiquan you think you can correct yourself, make the proper adjustments, the mind says I want to do it, but the mind and the body are not in sync, so the body can’t do it. The training of 30 minutes is to train this coordination.” Chen Xiao Xing mimicked the common deviations, head out, rump up and pushed back, shoulders tense. “When you focus on one thing too hard, then other things deviate.”
I had never heard my teacher explain this phenomenon so clearly. “If you can train the mind to continue to receive and endure it in Standing, there will be a moment where the body and mind can work together. At that time, the mind is in the body and you can self correct.” “So all problems are because the mind is not in the body?” I asked my teacher. “Yes.” “Is it because we are lazy?” I continued. He chuckled. “But lazy is not the root problem. The root problem is the mind and the body are not working together. You have to fight for it, endure it, only then can you reach the next stage and improve.”
Chen Xiao Xing continued, “Most people do Taijiquan at about 30%. “It’s good exercise, good for the body,” he stated, “but to really improve, one must pass over this 30% - learn to endure more. Then one has a chance to self-correct and improve. “How do we accomplish this then, if it is so difficult?” Shiuwen asked. “Every body is different, every mind is different,” Chen Xiao Xing mused. After afternoon Standing Shiuwen and I compared notes. For me, after the first correction I was able to endure a bit beyond the two minutes, though I noted my mind drifted at about 1.20 and I had to bring it back. After the second correction, the deeper one, I lasted a little over a minute before my body had to adjust itself and try to find it again.
Many long term students fight not just to endure the physical experience, but also fight the question, “I’ve been doing this so long, why aren’t I better?” This inquiry is definitely coming up during this training trip, which has put us all right smack back at the beginning. Each session: 40 minute Standing, sixty minutes of Silk Reeling and one hour of form. At day three, we are “only” at the third Buddha’s attendant. More brutal than enduring the Standing is finding the humility to recognize one’s true place in the learning curve. At the beginning, again. I said to Meg, “It’s just a narrative the mind uses, the why aren’t I better?” It is another way the mind, the ego, pulls itself out of the body. We have to fight to overcome that too.
Yesterday was day three, a notorious threshold in these types of trainings. We passed through. There was no rehearsal and it was great to have the extra space in our day. We all said we had the best afternoon naps we have ever had, ever! Our entire group packed into the Village stores after dinner and, along with the locals, enjoyed the cool evening air. We even saw the moon and stars. We even found popsicles.
The roosters have been up for a while now, the morning light is breaking. The cook has arrived. Day four begins.