by Richard Farmer
For most of us, we take up Tai Chi because we know, somewhere, there is more. Whether we come to Tai Chi because of our health, or because there is a sense of dissatisfaction with life as it is, we are looking for answers to life’s questions.
In this article I want to explore the saying, “Be Still and Know” as a reply to that enquiry and show how even the practice of Tai Chi can be part of the problem. Having explored what “Be Still” is, I want to show how we can avoid this problem and use Tai Chi as a truly nourishing practice.
The problem with this kind of article is that it is too short for what is quite a simple and yet complex subject. I hope you will be patient with me whilst I paint a picture for you of what this saying means for me. In order to give you a 3D feeling for what I am talking about I want to offer you some images. Relax back and take it word by word, allowing yourself to be drawn into the images and get a real feeling for them - perhaps even reflecting on how they could impact and be applied to your life as you go along.
Let us first take the words “Be Still”. Well the first thing that comes to my mind is a definition of Tai Chi as “Stillness in movement”. I don't think they mean no outer movement, as in ‘do not move’, so they must mean an inner stillness. What might this look like?
I usually walk Sunny, our dog, in the fields above our house where the view spreads out over rolling hills to Gloucester, the forest of Dean and Ross on Wye. I love walking there and sometimes I find the highest point and play some Chi Kung or a Form, just giving and receiving to Life.
The other day I discovered some horses had taken up residence in one of these fields, of course the one with the best view. These horses belong to a local national hunt trainer and they are magnificent, big, strong boned for jumping but light of foot for racing. They are very fit, well looked after and well fed, in short they are very spirited. As I entered the field they all pricked up their ears and looked in our direction and as one,
galloped over to see what the new interest was. To be galloped at by 7 very big horses is quite a sight. The ground literally shook beneath our feet. I was quite frightened and escaped by standing my ground and shooing them away, then walking quickly to the fence.
The horses were still there next time I went walking and I felt a sense of disappointment but also a sense of resolve that they should not spoil what was one of my favourite walks. Before I climbed over the fence I felt into how I could walk into the field disturbing the atmosphere as little as possible. Of course I realised that if I walked like I do Tai Chi that would do the trick.
I had a most interesting walk.
Firstly I felt the memory of those thunderous hooves bearing down on me and felt a flicker of the fear I had felt before. I calmed down. I came back into my present physicality, I felt my breathing, I felt the turf under my feet and the weight of my body. I relaxed and came closer to the line of my spine. I began to walk across the field, the horses looked, I felt a prickle of fear move out from me to them. I relaxed and came
back to my breathing and felt the movement of fear come back into me and dissolve. The horses lowered their heads. I continued to walk resting in my spine.
The moment the fear returned and with it the desire for them to stay where they were, the horses pricked up their ears, raised their heads and began to move towards me. Each time I released that inner movement, let go and just was present in myself, they lowered their heads again and continued to eat.
What I discovered or rather what was confirmed for me over the next few visits was the outer effect of an inner stillness.
From the horses’ point of view they are just in the field and this person walks in with a big notice which says, “Do not follow me”. This is of course very interesting for them. However the moment I took that notice down and just naturally walked through the field there was no notice to look at. I was just another natural movement in their field, like the trees moving to the wind or like the pheasants flying about, or the foxes padding across the field or rabbits munching the grass. It was very clear. Stillness in movement.
Now let us turn our attention back to the saying, “Be Still and Know” with another image. Imagine a small swimming pool full of very clear water. It is a warm day, the water is calm, still, no ripples on the surface of the water. Now imagine yourself as that water. Feel how clear and still you are. From inside your body of water, feel how if something enters you, you immediately know about it. You even know exactly where it
Now imagine yourself as that same body of water, full of all sorts of things - old chairs, bits of log floating, perhaps a few ducks - and someone puts a toe in you to test the temperature of the water. Would you notice as easily as before? Well I reckon you would agree with me that it would be more difficult. Why? Because of all the movement in you that pulls your attention.
Here is another thing for you to think about. As I type this, the river Wye is just below me and today it is a very muddy colour. Yesterday it was more green but the water remains the same. Muddy water is still water, it is just water with mud in it. Water keeps to its nature no matter what is in it. It adapts, so that muddy water will flow slightly differently from clear water, however the water remains itself, unchanged.
Now why am I telling you this? I am telling you this because we as humans usually, when we feel like muddy water, forget that we are water and focus on the mud. We are not clear water that has some mud in it, we are the mud. That creates quite a different mind set. The statement “I am depressed” is very different from “I am one who has depression in me.” One contains the feeling, the other becomes the feeling, is taken over by it completely.
Now let’s go back to the pool. If I am that body of water and all I identify with is the bits in me, I am a very disturbed and broken piece of water. But if I relate to the fact that I am still one body of water with bits in it, then I am more likely to feel the addition of one more piece because I am not broken.
In terms of “Be Still and Know” we have two images. The first clear pool knows because it is literally still, empty, whole and undisturbed. The second pool knows because it is not divided by the things in it and therefore is also still, empty, whole and undisturbed.
This is essentially what the practice of Tai Chi Chuan or any spiritual practice is for. To become unified enough to know what is happening, because when I know what is happening, I usually know what to do.
Look carefully into when the question “What should I do?” is answered and you will see that often it is because the nature of the problem has been understood and so the action is obvious. The real question is not “What should I do?” but “What is happening?”
In order to understand what is happening, in order to know, I must look within for the answer. If I am very busy inside there is no room to feel the object or feeling or relationship I want to explore. There are too many things in the way.
The object of Tai Chi practice is to become still so that we can once again feel our body of water, our true nature, our true presence or mind or spirit or being - whatever word you want to use. We understand our Tao. Like the two images of water we are undivided and so still.
This undivided self receives things. At first there is a lot of movement in the receiving, we go out to receive because we are anxious. We are trying hard to receive, we are trying hard to be still and like me in the field of horses, from the horses’ point of view there is a big sign on my forehead saying “Busy”. But receiving is about letting something come to us, we receive it in stillness. This is called Rooting.
So I want you to feel towards how you practise and learn your Tai Chi Chuan, from the horses’ point of view. In your field of practice, do you create a lot of movement in trying to learn? Is there a lot of huff and puff? Is there a lot of have to, should do, must do? Is there a lot of forcing yourself? All of these things are very busy and the chances are you will not understand the meaning of Tai Chi Chuan.
Instead of this busy approach what can you use?
Firstly you can take time to watch your teacher closely. If you cannot see a move, or know it with your eyes, you will not be able to take it on. Right here at the sharp end, right here at the beginning of learning, if there is enough stillness, you will know that you did not get it. You did not see it. So ask them to do it again, they won't mind. In fact they will be delighted that someone has enough knowing to know they don't know!
When you practise, let the amount of time you choose to practise come from a feeling of wanting to do it, from enjoyment. Two minutes of enjoyable practice is worth 15 minutes of ‘have to’. You have a whole tool box of exercises and ways of playing the Form, so be still enough to know which tool will meet where you are today.
Ask yourself what are you nourishing by this practice? Are you nourishing ‘have to’ or ‘want to’ or are you nourishing, meeting, a need directly? Do you know that you become what you practise? This is an important thing to understand.
Do you try to imitate the outer movement that your teacher is showing you or do you look for the inner feeling that seeing them do the posture creates in you? When trying a new move at home, do you position your hands and feet to some outer beat created by your head or do you let the feeling and knowing guide where your feet and hands should be? Do you allow yourself to get it roughly right and then refine it from there or are you trying to get it perfect straight away? Can you see how right at the beginning we are creating a practice of busyness?
I know that stillness can understand a movement because it receives it and knows it. I know that movement/busyness cannot understand a movement because there is no room for understanding. So when I am faced with a challenge I turn myself towards stillness in order to understand it because I know that busyness will not. The greater the challenge the greater the stillness required.
So our practice of living Tai Chi Chuan is firstly a practice of unification - not mastery of the bits and pieces - like when I was crossing the field it was only when I was in one place in myself that the horses ignored me. So when you play a Form let yourself play it as a unified body and mind, as one unit, even if it is not technically right.
There are of course places in the Form that are not clear but there are also many places within the Form where you know what the sequence is. Before you leap into the next posture, let yourself pause and find the stillness that knows the next move or part of the sequence, then let yourself follow it and enjoy the ride. This is far more important that the bits and pieces. From this place of unification we can gradually come to understand the whole movement and from this understanding comes knowing and from this knowing we become a master of and with it.
The solo Form allows us to come to this within ourselves and the partner Forms allow us to explore this in relation to ‘Other’. We learn to stand still before something because this allows us to know it. When I ‘know’ something is coming to my left then I know to yield to the left and let it go. If I ‘think’ it is coming to the left, I don't know this in my body. It may be a subtle push and because I am too busy I don't know it and yield the wrong way. The busyness may be there because I fear my partner, or I have had a tough day and am tired. It may be because I dislike my partner or because I am in awe of my partner. All of these things create movement in me and that is in the way.
The more I go on, the more I see that the practice of living Tai Chi is about becoming still in the midst of busyness. This is the essence of Tai Chi, stillness within movement. It is the essence of Taoism, non action, Wu Wei. Not, not doing anything, but letting the movement come out of you like a tree moves with the wind. It is natural to you, it is yours because you rest in your true nature. Muddy water is essentially itself, water. If you understand this you will understand many things.
To become Tai Chi is to understand this.
Illness comes out of movement, healing comes out of stillness. Hate and irritation comes out movement, love and compassion come out of stillness.
Unhappiness comes out of being divided - movement. Happiness is a wholesome state because it is undivided - stillness.
We all want to be happy. I feel every act on the planet is done because we think that act will make us happy. Some are obviously mistaken. If we want to be happy then we want to move towards stillness and away from busyness. We take up Tai Chi in order to be happy but it too can become part of the problem if we use busyness to make it happen.
So if you want to be happy, practise stillness and unification. Use your Tai Chi practice to create the stillness that leads to knowing. Let your next practice be before that herd of horses and move in such a way that you are stillness. This is when the magic happens and just a few seconds of this transforms a day.
Be still and know. I am excited by this and would like to offer RDTC students an opportunity to come and explore this quality of stillness in movement. I want to offer you a weekend just at the point in the year when most people are fed up with the darkness, the cold and the winter. On this weekend we will, in the comfort, light and warmth of Poulstone Court dip into the tranquil nourishment that lies just beneath our surface. We will explore this in stillness, in movement and in relationship to other. We will explore it in how we use our Forms and how we use our exercises to nourish us. In short I will help you to build a practice based on stillness not busyness. For full details check the flyer.