Thursday March 1 is World Book Day, so I thought it a great opportunity to share some of my favourite writings on the art and philosophy of tai chi. While there are a plethora of tai chi related books out there to choose from, there is one that I come back to again and again: Tao Te Ching, roughly translated as The Book of the Way, a classic of Taoism and a pillar of Chinese philosophy.
My favoured translation (by Stephen Mitchell) begins, “The Tao (way) that can be named, is not the eternal Tao”.
It sets the scene early for an often head-scratching journey we are taken on by Lao Tzu, the 6th century philosopher and writer said to have written the 81 verses.
Scratch beneath the surface and ponder the depth of Lao Tzu’s words and a wonderful philosophy emerges, by which we can live in harmony with the natural world around us.
Several of the verses tend to stick in my mind when I relate them to my practice of tai chi, but here are the top 3:
1. “The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step”
Often attributed to Confucius, this phrase features within verse 64 of Tao Te Ching. It resounds with me because tai chi can often feel like a long journey! There can often be years between starting a form and completing it – and even once you have learnt all of the moves, it takes many more years to master them (in fact, that journey never ends).
For me, the verse is a call-to-action – to get started on whatever is in front of me, no matter how hard it is to take the first step. This can be applied to so many things in life, whether i’s a tai chi form, a task at work, a new health regime, dealing with a difficult decision in life, or anything else that involves a marathon rather than a sprint.
On another level, this phrase also reminds me that the journey is to be enjoyed and savoured. How often do we feel a sense of anti-climax when we complete a huge job or task, and realise in retrospect that the weeks, months or even years of action (our journey), were the most rewarding part of the process?
2. “Nothing is more soft and yielding than water, Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better … The weak overcome the strong, The supple overcome the stiff”
This statement is VERY tai chi. The movements in tai chi are (mostly) soft, relaxed and yielding – but this should not be mistaken for being weak! Like water, there is a quiet, yet tremendous power within the practice of tai chi.
Water does not meet force with force, neither does a tai chi practitioner. It moves around objects and, over time, can erode even the highest of peaks. From this we can learn to overcome our greatest challenges and obstacles.
3. “He who conquers others is strong, He who conquers himself is mighty”
Tai chi is a martial art, but in reality (and thankfully), we generally do not need to defend ourselves against attackers. So, self defence becomes protection against modern day, more personal ‘enemies’, including sedentary lifestyles, anxiety, chronic health conditions, insomnia, bad nutrition and pollution.
I view training as the best life insurance policy I can take out. We do not need to conquer others, imposing our dominance and will over them. But I believe it is vitally important that we take charge of our own health and wellbeing, conquer our weaknesses, and be our best, mightiest selves. This is an ethos we passionately promote at WCO.