Updated: Jan 9, 2018
An early version of this article was published in the December 1987 edition of T'ai Chi: The International Magazine of T'ai Chi Ch'uan. Photo of Ken Cohen practicing Tai Chi at the Val Morin Yoga Camp (Quebec) in 1968.
It is hard to believe that I ever began Tai Chi– it is so much a part of my life. Nor can I imagine a time when the practice will end or when the learning will stop. I was first exposed to Chinese culture through a “mistake.” In 1968, the well known author Alan Watts suggested that I might enjoy a book called Sound and Symbol by a German musicologist. As I rode home on the subway that afternoon, I realized that in my haste I had mistakenly purchased another book of the same title but by a different author. Instead of a book about music, I found myself reading one of the rarest and finest introductions to the Chinese language, Sound and Symbol by the Swedish Sinologist Bernhard Karlgren. After reading one chapter, I was hooked. I realized that by studying a truly foreign language I could learn how language and concept influence one’s perception of reality. Perhaps I could, in the process, free myself of the preconceptions hidden in my own language, English, and learn to perceive the world silently and thus, more truly. Within a few months, I began to study the Chinese language and, not long thereafter, Tai Chi and Qigong.
As I reflect on this story, I realize that it explains not only how I began Tai Chi but why I have continued. Foreign language study can clear the mind of culture-bound assumptions. Similarly, Tai Chi liberates the student from preconceptions held in the body: the immature and inappropriate strategies for living fixed in posture and breathing.
To stand straight is to broaden one's viewpoint. To breathe slowly is to take life as it comes, without memory or expectation. As the body releases habitual, anxious patterns, the mind becomes quiet. The qi flows not only within the body, but between oneself and Nature. In breathing, the external world becomes you. Yet you do not own it, you let it go. There is distinct feeling that breath flows from and returns to the source of life-- the Tao.
I had another beginning, a renaissance of Qi, several years later. I was teaching my first seminar at a conference center in Amherst, Massachusetts. One evening, during a break, I decided to take a walk outside; snow was falling and hanging heavy on the pine trees. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to practice Tai Chi in this setting? As I began practicing, something very odd happened. Normally, I experienced Tai Chi movements as arising from deep within, seemingly generated by the breath and by the slow shifting of the weight. But this time I disappeared; I was not doing Tai Chi. Rather, the falling snow, the trees, the air, the ground itself were unfolding through the various postures. I became a sphere of energy whose center was everywhere. This was a kind of spiritual rebirth and revelation, what in Japanese is called satori (dun wu in Chinese). Mind and body were empty, subject and object disappeared in a unified field of awareness. I cannot claim the experience as my own, because the experience was without “I”. But I do know that my Tai Chi has never been the same.
Naturally, another source of my lifelong enthusiasm is the dramatic effect Tai Chi and Qigong have had on my own health. I was a weak and sickly child and a victim of the poor medical practices of the time. Antibiotics were prescribed for every cold and scratchy throat, leading to a downward spiral of poorer and poorer health. These ancient Chinese practices cured my chronic bronchitis, weak immune system, poor sleep, and low energy. I look for ways to bring similar benefits to my students.
I applaud the scientists who are looking for the mechanism of Tai Chi and Qigong– how they work– and who design experiments to validate their efficacy as complementary medicine. Science has already demonstrated powerful healing effects on cancer, heart disease, chronic pain, and so many other conditions. However, people who practice do not need proof to know that it works. They experience it. Science has yet to prove that the sun exists. Yet this does not prevent us from enjoying its light and warmth. Yes, trust science. But trust yourself even more.