Tai chi as a way of life

This is part of the series Shore Stories: Life Along the Lakeshore, columns by local residents about their lives. 

In late May, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill targeting anti-Asian hate crimes.

This follows a similar bill passed by the Senate in April, at around the same time there was a rally here in Holland, Michigan, condemning anti-Asian violence. I am fully behind these efforts, especially since my beautiful, kind, smart Korean daughter is subject to stupid bouts of anti-Asian prejudice. But I want to counter this hate with love.

My love of Asian culture has led me to study and teach Asian philosophies for over 30 years. I have practiced tai chi ch’uan, the traditional Chinese exercise and martial art, for longer. I was attracted to tai chi primarily because it is beautiful. As a slow-moving meditation, it is an elegant vehicle of grace. 

I learned tai chi from a senior student of Cheng Man-ch’ing, the man most responsible for its spread in the West. Although tai chi embodies many principles of Daoist philosophy — gentleness, flowing movement, softness, balance of yin and yang, humility, etc. — Professor Cheng was primarily a Confucian, emphasizing its moral aspects. As his son notes in a new video about him, “He was teaching tai chi as a way of life.”
Andrew Dell'Olio with his family.
Moral self-cultivation

Considered as a way of life, tai chi may be seen primarily as a vehicle for moral self-cultivation. It is part of the effort at learning to improve oneself to be of service to others. Tai chi, like Confucianism, teaches that harmony or balance is fundamental. In all things, one aims to keep one’s balance, to remain centered, and to restore balance where needed. The feet are rooted to the earth and the head is held by a string from the heavens. Tai chi encourages us to be grounded in the soil yet to also feel that our spirit is reaching toward the sacred.

In addition to the balance between heaven and earth, we also need balance or harmony with one another. Cultivating the disposition to achieve physical balance leads to the disposition to seek social balance. Does one find imbalance or injustice in society? If so, then we are disposed to act to right it. Similarly, we need balance within ourselves. Being centered, we find an inner stillness as the world swirls around us. We can follow the swirling, but we need not let it overwhelm us. This is how we stay calm amid chaotic activity. And this is how we may respond appropriately rather than pushed into overreacting or reacting with force.

Although tai chi is a martial art, it teaches us never to react with force. It is a way of nonviolence. How does one achieve this? Relax, relax, relax. Tai chi teaches that we must relax all physical tension in our body for qi, our life-energy, to flow freely. By relaxing, we also let go of ourselves as we drop our burdens, our past hurts, our emotional tension. This helps us diminish our own stress and better relate to others. Tai chi teaches that we must “invest in loss.” “Be as selfless as melting ice,” writes Lao-tzu in the Daodejing. 

Responding without force

By cultivating humility, we learn to listen to the needs of others. This is the essence of tai chi push-hands practice. We follow our fellow push-hands player by listening through touch, by developing a sensitivity to the other. When empty of self-centeredness, we can open up and be present to what is before us. And we learn to respond spontaneously without force, knowing that gentleness defeats aggression, softness overcomes hardness. In tai chi, one learns to deflect any incoming force by simply shifting one’s weight and rotating. The incoming force then has no place to land.

How many situations in life might be neutralized if we emptied ourselves and deflected rather than struck back with force? And since the other’s force circles back to them, their aggression imparts a lesson in karma, showing that what goes around, comes around. “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.” The lesson: Put down the sword or gun, or hate speech, or smallness of mind, whatever your weapon of choice.

“Standing between heaven and earth, what dignity my body possesses,” wrote the Chinese Confucian philosopher Wang Yangming. 

May the embodied sense of dignity one learns from tai chi teach us to treat all persons, all beings, with utmost dignity and respect. And, in gratitude, may we especially continue to respect, and learn from, our Asian brothers and sisters. Spread Asian love.

Holland resident Andrew Dell'Olio (Ph.D., Columbia) is Professor of Philosophy at Hope College, where he has served as Department Chair and Director of the program in Asian Studies. He is certified in Client Counseling by the American Philosophical Practitioners Association (APPA). An unabridged version of his blog on tai chi can be found at andrewdellolio.com/blog/.