Lately I have been thinking much about security, and how people crave respite from uncertainty because our societies are so atomised, (I am speaking as someone living in the UK, your context may be different.) People outsource their uncertainty and it is suffered by others via the usual mechanisms of capitalism and colonialism we know well. Gated communities, ‘othering’ and scapegoating of low status people in almost all societies, cheap, low-welfare, overseas manufacturing… Wherever I look, the main flow is not only money or goods but uncertainty and risk. Or rather, the experience of suffering this uncertainty. As the uncertainty remains, though occulted, and accrues, gaining interest as does capital. They are in fact two sides of the same shell. So I am asking myself the question, or perhaps have been for a long time now, am I willing to experience my own uncertainty, risk, insecurity-of-situation, and not foist it onto others, not fortify myself against it with misuse of religion, politics, money, goods, status or other shiny accretions of certainty? To answer yes to this, seems right now to be another way of saying one is a Taoist. Or maybe just a human. ‘Things change, get over it’, as they say.
Yet, there is more. The Taoists of old seemed a solitary lot, or sometimes grouped together in monasteries, but mainly because Buddhism was on the rise, and it was the way to survive as a Way in China at that time. Some of these schools succumbed to the quest for longevity, with their sometimes rather dubious ‘immortality’ energy techniques… (to me just another form of resisting uncertainty). The best old writings I find are by those who maintained their practice, humour and wayfaring, whether on a mountain or at home with the family, whether serving at court or drinking wine and playing lute with a friend on a boat. Thinking one has everything sewn-up in a Theory of Everything would be my particular hue on this spectrum of uncertainty-avoidance, but menopause has deepened my colour a little, and reminded me in no uncertain terms about shit happening, as Covid-19 has for others. Perhaps tech-culture’s mistaking the map for the territory is a similar attempt at, I think at root is identical with – ‘not dying just yet thankyou very much’. It is a great yet not uncommon irony to find Taoists who espouse change, really hating it when it happens to us.
In T’ai Chi we have a posture called in English ‘ward-off’. At first glance it is a round shape in the arms, the legs and indeed the whole body eventually. It is the shape which best seems to absorb, distribute and transfer energy, blows, pushes, weight, etc, in action, leaving the best result, no harm done. However, the Chinese word for this ‘peng’ (pronounced usually somewhat like ‘bung’), doesn’t mean ‘to ward something off’ at all. This is an English word for what the colonial chaps who first saw and described it thought they were looking at. They saw someone keeping something at bay. Ha! that tells you everything about them (and Britain at that time) and nothing about the real qualities of peng, which are lively, soft yet firm, round, elastic, yielding, a meeting place, relaxed, responsive, subtle, and when formed masterfully – almost imperceptible as a ‘shape’ at all. A non-T’ai Chi person watching our Grandmaster stand in ‘ward-off’ would have seen an old man just standing there in no particular stance. Reminding me of a favourite Taoist Classics line: ‘What is looked at and cannot be seen is called the subtle’. Of course it is entirely possible that early Chinese T’ai Chi artists meeting westerners showed them some wooden-looking shapes just to get them to go away thinking they had stolen secrets. Who could blame them?
When I first learned ward-off it became part of my immaculate defences, for keeping the world at bay. But as John Kells wrote to me, in a terrifying yet edifying teaching letter, ‘We call this a living death.’ To keep everything out is to die a little inside every day. Something had to give, to yield.
There is an upright, flexible, turning, anti-fragile, open expanded way to be, that is helpful in dealing with change, yet not deflecting, denying or seeking to control it. This, in movement, takes many forms, T’ai Chi, butoh, parkour, certain improvisational methods, aikido, indeed many forms of natural movement… It exists in music, theatre, sport, craft, art, gardening… In the realm of words, actions, indeed living a life, there is also a way to have peng and to be yielding. But what is not spoken of so much in the Taoist Classics, or the T’ai Chi Classics, is the aspect of community and solidarity. There is much in the Tao of interspecies care and reciprocity, There are many great stories of Taoist and creatures, trees, rocks, whole mountains, in deep conversation and dialogue. But in popular culture ‘Tao’ it is obscured by the ‘lone wanderer’ veneration of Lao Tzu. It almost fits too well with the ‘Atlas Shrugged’ crew in Silicon Valley. Well, only a fraction of writings have been translated into English, and I am only versed in a fraction of those. But ‘the principles are few, yet the permutations are endless’.
If I seek to assume responsibility for all my own uncertainty and risk and not farm it off to others, I need to become fully aware of my circumstances, privilege and the mechanisms of ‘the world’. I need to discover and practice the inward and outward ‘postures’ (ways of being in the world and in the heart) that best nurture life, preserve the diversity of its flourishing, and see how utterly interconnected everything and everyone is. In contrast to the hyper-individualists out there and their toxic fortifications of self, I suggest that humans have always known best how to mitigate risk, provide balm for uncertainty and provide the rockpools and side-tributaries of relative safety so that we are not always buffeted like salmon swimming to spawn, fighting the current at all costs to do one important task.
Community. Solidarity. In families, sure, but wider, starting where we live, and where we spend our time (including online). These are the rock pools and side streams, where we can catch our breath, feed, shoal, school, rest, sleep. They are not where we can live our whole lives, as life is in the great river, and in the sea, and this life, as Helen Keller so rightly said, is an adventure, or nothing at all. The rock pool is a great analogy though, as at some point the tide will cover it again, and return all still living to the wider sea.
I see our T’ai Chi schools as a rock pool and am heartily looking forward to meeting the other crabs, minnows, slugs, mussels and fish again. I am personally feeling quite nudibranch today. Good wishes for your practice. Caro.
[First written and published during the first UK lockdown, May 2020, revised and updated during the third lockdown, January 2021.]