I often wonder about the connections—or lack thereof—between some interesting and potentially mind-blowing metaphysical claim and what might be called (although I don’t like the phrase) “real life.” Lately, that wonder has been directed toward ways in which training in a practice such as taijiquan that at least purports to be meaningfully Daoist might inform and be informed by academic study of Daoist metaphysics.
I’ve had a bunch of different taijiquan teachers over the years. Some of them were widely read about Chinese culture and history. Others, not so much. For whatever it’s worth, only one them—my first taijiquan teacher, who taught Yang family style in Chapel Hill back in the late 90’s—was Chinese, and though I never found out how well-read he was, I have come to appreciate how deeply knowledgeable that old man was about both taijiquan and Chinese traditions. I feel like I learned a great deal from some of my teachers and that I managed to learn a bit less from others, but I’m grateful to all of them for offering me something important, and I suspect that I could have learned more from each and every one of them than I did, had I understood how to be a better student. In each case, the teacher taught with sincerity.
As I’ve tried to learn taijiquan, I’ve had various moments when I’ve had the opportunity to think about the connections between the practice I was learning and the Chinese philosophy I work on academically. Let me share two such incidents.
In one case, I had a teacher who was showing a group of students how to do a particular move—if I recall correctly, it was a form of the move commonly called “brush knee”—and the teacher talked about how the movement of the hands relative to one another exemplified some principle of the interaction of yin and yang. (I have one incident in mind here, but there was nothing unusual about this teacher saying this particular thing on this occasion; from what I’ve seen, many taijiquan teachers bring out the yin/yang trope frequently.) I think I thought at the time something like, “Oh, geez, this is cringeworthy. You can’t possibly understand what you’re talking about.” (This teacher was not the one from China, and, though he was highly educated, his formal education was not in Asian studies, as far as I could tell.) But, almost simultaneously, I recall being struck both by how arrogant my thoughts were revealing me to be and by how helpful it was in terms of the practice I was trying to learn to think of that movement in terms of the separation of yin and yang. In addition, my teacher’s comment also seemed helpful in thinking about how to understand yin/yang metaphysics: I began mentally tracing out the beginnings of some big theory of “embodied practice” and (to borrow an expression I think was introduced into the literature about Daoism by Russell Kirkland or perhaps James Miller) “biospirituality” that would withstand my own analytic scruples and perhaps lead to a respectable article-length piece that I could submit somewhere for rejection by the academic peer-review process. (The theorizing soon came to a stop as the lesson progressed and I had to attend carefully to how exactly to move my body through space while doing the form I was learning. Practice, such as it was, got the upper hand over my momentary dreams of theory, at least at that moment.)
Here’s the second incident, one that seems to provide a contrasting lesson to the first: More recently, I was learning a different form of taijiquan, in a style and from a teacher that both place heavy emphasis on the martial aspects of the art. This particular teacher was more well-read about Asia than some of the others. As an aside during our lesson, he gave me a brief potted history of his particular style of taijiquan and of the traditional family styles in general. According to this history, all the Daoist metaphysics that often gets linked to taijiquan is just unnecessary clutter that was added to the practice by various masters at some point along the way, more-or-less to sell the product to a Chinese audience that at the time was really into (what my teacher thinks of as) unmitigated obfuscation. (There was more to the story my teacher told, but that’s the gist of it.) I thought to myself that what he was saying seemed plausible and even wise, and it seemed at the time that his hard-nosed, “just the facts” perspective on a practice that he has dedicated a significant chunk of his life to mastering could shed some light on how to engage in a scholarly way with Chinese philosophy and religion—at least if that “just the facts” perspective was applied with care, and in exactly the right amount.
So, what’s the point—other than that I probably should recognize that I have a tendency to be overly impressed by pronouncements about the relevance of Chinese philosophy to taijiquan when they are made by people who are directing me to move my body through space in unfamiliar ways? I don’t want to make too much of these two moments, or any of the numerous others at which I have been struck by the ways in which engaging in a physical practice that is more-or-less an attempted embodiment of a Daoist metaphysical perspective might benefit and be benefited by the academic work I do. But, at the same time, I am convinced—at least to the point of being willing to blog about it and discuss it informally over drinks with friends—that engaging with a physical practice that is in some non-trivial way a descendent of a form of practice that was at some point in time a meaningful embodiment of yin/yang theory or of Daoist-inspired metaphysics can be helpful to one’s understanding.
I don’t mean that studying the academic history of the martial arts (or of various qigong or yangsheng practices, or of Daoist zuowang meditation or visualization techniques, or whatever) is what is going to help me understand Daoist metaphysics (although it could, and maybe it has), nor do I mean that engaging in some broadly anthropological or sociological study of various practice communities is going to do the trick (but it might). I mean to express something simpler, and much more naïve: that actually getting off my ass and trying to learn how to do some sort of Dao-inspired practice seems to have the potential to help me be a better scholar, at least at some point down the road, even if such practice is the kind of thing that many of us do our best to keep separated from our professional profiles.