The Heart of Lightness: A 2004 Letter to My Fellow Students by Mark Bernhard

While I was walking around watching and helping the beginning students with the postures last week I was struck by how hard you all are working and how focused everyone is. I also reflected on my first days and months in class and the frustration, puzzlement, and wonder of beginning practice. In the four years I have been a student of Greg and Ching’s, I’ve seen many people come and go through their classes. After class last week I began to think, “What can I do to help these particular people continue to practice?” I thought it just might be helpful for you to hear from someone other than your teachers (like maybe a fellow student) about his experience learning and practicing Tai Chi.

There are many reasons why someone might be interested in Tai Chi—improved health, balance, relaxation, curiosity. For me it was curiosity. I had done Tai Chi very briefly twenty years ago and enjoyed it but, for one reason or another, never kept it up. It always intrigued me—“What are those millions of Chinese doing in those parks?” My younger son had stopped doing karate when he was 13 (he got his black belt) and, when I saw Greg’s ad in the paper, I thought “Maybe that’s something we could do together” (karate was never my thing). But Tai Chi is definitely not for everybody–he lasted a month (too boring). I remained intrigued.

For me, beginning practice pushed a lot of buttons and raised a lot of questions: “It looks so easy—you’re not doing hardly anything—why is it so hard for me to learn and remember it—am I that dumb?” “I‘ve been walking all my life…. why can’t I do this?” “OK you put your foot here and then your hand goes like this…or was it like THIS?” (Look at the book/rewind the tape yet again). “What AM I doing—am I supposed to be feeling something—what?” Then there’s all the directions: sink into the three nails (what does THAT mean?), let your shoulders drop, let your hands “float,” move from the hips, suspend your head from the ceiling, sit down, let your clavicles “smile,” inhale when you “energize” (again, whatever THAT means), and while you’re trying to do all that…RELAX. Sure. Then in class there’s the confusion and the fear of doing it “wrong,” or “Jeez, Greg’s watching me…why didn’t I practice more this week…screwed up…AGAIN!” (Just so you know, my practice still raises a lot of questions, just different ones, but now I have more confidence that the answers will reveal themselves).

So, one word of advice: Relax. (Yeah, I know). But, really, relax. Because you’re not going anywhere. You aren’t in a tunnel and there’s no light at the end. As convenient as it is to compare Tai Chi to learning a musical instrument or learning the alphabet so you can write poetry, the truth is: no musician plays only one tune over and over and over and no poet writes the same poem twice. So what is it about Tai Chi that people are willing to do apparently the same movements ad infinitum? My advice is to practice and you will see. The reason is that no matter how long you practice, no two 10-minute sessions of form are ever the same. Not tomorrow. Not in four or 24 years. We have all heard the phrase “You can never step in the same river twice.” That exactly describes your practice. Greg and Ching are giving you some navigational skills they have acquired, but it’s your river. As you travel up/down this river, there are many twists and turns, eddies and backwaters, but no rapids to be concerned about. And many pleasurable experiences await you. You just have to watch for them. Generally you won’t see them coming. But in order to continue you have to get in the river regularly; you have to practice. My advice is: at least 20 minutes a day. If you can’t do that, try 3 days a week. The important thing is to keep doing it. Your practice is a gift you give yourself: the gift of feeling, not thinking, of experiencing without judgment. I know it doesn’t seem that way when you’re beginning and trying to remember all that stuff I mentioned. I will admit: I didn’t feel anything like “energy,” or whatever, for over a year of daily practice, so…. relax. It will come. Do the steps and attend to the details. The basics will always be the foundation of your practice and the source of all expansion and discovery. That’s why I keep coming to the “beginning” class—I get a fresh insight every single time. You’ll never get it all completely RIGHT!–the river’s too deep.

And don’t just practice Tai Chi when you are doing the form. Practice the principles (rooting, letting go, directing/focusing your mind, and synchronous movement) when you are bending to pick up a pencil, walking down the street, cooking, talking on the phone, standing in line, driving a car, climbing stairs, or doing some other exercise—I’ve discovered a lot of things about Tai Chi while swimming. I find that visualizing doing the form when I’m lying in bed is a great way to put myself to sleep—I rarely get past White Crane before I’m out. The more you think about it in your daily life, the more you will be changed by it. And that is what will happen—you will change. Tai Chi is movement alchemy. You will begin to feel different when you walk, sit, or stand. More profoundly, you will begin to see your self and others and situations that arise differently.

An interesting thing to remember about Tai Chi is that it is a hologram. Each moment of the form contains the entire form. Every moment requires the same skill set. There is no difference between Snake Creeps Down and Ward off Right except where your body parts appear to be. Inside, the same basic principles are at play. You really can’t do it “wrong.” You simply either do it or you don’t (more often the latter at the beginning). Just like trying to sing a specific note. If you don’t sing it, it’s just a different note. So go on to the next note. Self-judgment will only get in the way, because judgment creates tension through comparison and expectation and to DO Tai Chi, there must be no tension and no expectation or comparison, only listening and action. Be open and observant; that is when things will begin to be revealed. When you feel you’ve screwed up something, just keep going and try to observe what happens in the next moment. Or repeat the same few movements over and over and skip the rest of the form. Or don’t and come back to them the next day. When you feel a “sweet” sensation, notice/enjoy THAT and keep going. Just let go of it…whatever IT is. Stop holding on to it. At least while you’re doing the form. Then pick it back up if you need/want to when you’re done.

And be sure to ask questions in class—there really are no dumb ones. The longer you do the form, you will continue to find new moments to savor, and postures that seemed either like throwaways or bears to learn will suddenly become the flavor of the month. You will continually think “Oh, THAT’S what that position is supposed to feel like in my body” And the very next round you may discover something else entirely about that very same moment in the form because you have stepped into a new river. Finally there’s the paradox thing. “You go down…the energy comes up.” “Less effort equals more power.” “The more you surrender to gravity, the lighter you become.” It’s crazy, but true. Get used to it.

So, I hope you will continue on the river. Enjoy the scenery. You never know what’s going to wander up to the shoreline. But it’s all friendly.

Keep paddling,


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