Just as Geshe Damcho was the catalyst for the “Cup of Tea” strainer so Dr Chi was instrumental in allowing me to find the authority to evolve the first three principles because he supplied me with the first one.
Around about 1985 I felt that it was time for me to go and see this legendary Dr Chi. In the traditional way of the martial arts, to get the real teaching, not just the public teaching, you have to be accepted through a recommendation of some sort. I wanted to have full and open access to Dr. Chi and so decided to honour my first teacher and the traditional by asking him, John Kells, to recommend me to his teacher, Dr. Chi.
A few months later, once the proper formalities were completed and permission asked for and granted, I was on a plane to Vancouver. On the appointed day I rang up Dr Chi and he agreed I could come round – straight away. He lived in a very secluded neighbourhood with lots of trees, open plan American style gardens with the wooden single storey house set back on a gently sloping lawn. Shyly I approached his door and knocked.
This was a big day for me. I had come a long way to stand here.
A spy hole opened up and an eyeball looked at me. I bowed and said who I was and the eyeball said, “Go away.” I was so shocked I mumbled who I was, once more thinking there must be some mistake and this time the answer came back stronger than before – “GO AWAY!” We went round this track a few more times each time my voice rising higher and higher with panic. Finally the world began to spin and I was about to pass out when the door opened and there stood Dr Chi. Come in, he said, welcome!
This was my first lesson. He agreed to teach me any secret I wanted – all I had to do was ask the question. I explained I was only interested in spiritual Tai Chi and although I realised the importance of applications and Tai Chi’s martial aspect, I wanted only to learn the spiritual side from him. He nodded and asked me to come back the next day and we would begin. 9am found me in Dr Chi’s back yard in front of the garage.
After a few minutes he asked me to stand ready to do some double-hand pushing with him. “Are you ready?” he said.”Yes” I said. Wham, he pushed me over. “No” he said. I got up. He said, “Are you ready?” “Yes”, I said. Wham, he pushed me over. “No” he said. I got up. He said, “Are you ready?”, “Yes” I said. Wham, he pushed me over. “No” he said. This went on for roughly ten minutes. Each time he pushed me I would stagger back, sometimes falling over, each time he would say “No” and we would continue. Finally, mercifully, he asked if we should do some Form now and I agreed a little shakily. No comment, no smile, just some preparatory warm up exercises and then he simply watched me play our Tai Chi Chuan Form.
In four weeks I discovered that out of all the Forms I knew I had one posture correct. It soon became clear that I had to choose between what I knew and was comfortable with and what he was now showing me. My Form, my practice was being taken apart, destroyed and there was a point of no return. It was here that I had to decide was I more interested in truly learning than I was in being comfortable. It was a real relief to know that I was.
Every day would start the same. “Are you ready?” “Yes”. Wham! “No!” For ten minutes and then as though a switch had been thrown, on to the Form. I tried many different ways of standing there when he asked if I was ready. Aggressively, meekly, pissed-offly, couldn’t care-lessly. On and on and each time the same thing.
One day, just like all the rest, he whammed me just like all the rest, and just like all the rest I staggered, except this time he said “Yes!” I didn’t know what I had done, or not done! Yet something was different, the question was what? In four weeks I had three Yes’s and hundreds of No’s.
As the plane took off for my journey home I wondered what that was all about. I had asked him not for self defence and he beat me up every day. What was “Yes?” It was like a koan eating at me. After months of replaying those moments in my head and feeling what was going on in me, my reactions and re-reading my diaries , I began to understand. The time he said “Yes” was when I was present. Richard Farmer, not Tai Chi Student, Tai Chi Teacher, Mr Angry, Mr Misunderstood etc. etc. just Richard Farmer. Finally all the masks had slipped away and by accident I, Richard Farmer was present. Yes! Now you can begin.
This is the beginning of spiritual Tai Chi. Spirtual anything. First be in your body, and in yourself. No advice was given, just “Are you ready?” “Yes” I said. Wham he pushed me over. “Yes” he said.
What is the first principle? Rest in the sensation of your body at all times – Be Present – a sense of Soft Strength – Nobility.
In Tai Chi the first principle is called “Rooting”. It means something full, present, unmoved, centred and owned. There are many levels of this principle. There is the physical manifestation of resting in the physical form at all times. There is the energetic manifestation, a sense of fullness, not hard or contracted. There is the mental manifestation, the bringing of a sense of presence and awareness to your experience no matter what it is. There is also the manifestation of knowing something, being in touch with the truth, your truth and owning it. All of these are manifestations of the first principle of rooting. In some sense we could say they are the different manifestations of the vessel of a human being in which swim our emotions and thoughts. The vessel is unmoved, is full and yet the life of experience moves within us in many ever changing ways.
In classical Tai Chi the energy of the principle of rooting is manifested out of a state of embodiment called “Peng”. When someone has this quality physically when you push them or put some pressure on their body it is rather like pushing a young tree trunk, it literally is rooted to the ground. In terms of becoming Tai Chi and of living Tai Chi the first principle – Rooting – means to become embodied, to be at ease in one’s skin.
Fullness of FORM All of creation rests in its own existence. Look out of the window now. Everything you see is resting in its form. Each tree is in its own nature responding naturally to the conditions that are offered to it. Each blade of grass at the same time is like all the other blades of grass and yet completely individual. That blade of grass is not trying to be like another blade of grass. Each insect and bird is a part of its species and yet an individual. A bird is not trying to be a fish. When we walk in nature, say in a forest, we feel this sense of presence, of embodiment and are uplifted by it. The whole forest just is.
However it is not just in nature that this is found, although it is a commonly used image. Try looking at the room you are in. As you look in this room everything is resting in its form – the chair just so, the floor, the house, the teapot, the TV – everything. It just rests in its form. The room that I am in at the moment was here before your mother’s mother was born. For every moment since it was built it has been here, day and night, year in year out. It has not contracted nor expanded with the people who have come into the room. It has not felt depressed because it was unused for many years, nor is it wearing its current use like a crown. It has been painted many colours and lived in and used by many people and all along, underneath the use and the paint, it has just been this room all along. This room is the first principle. It is embodied. It is a room not a flower. It is just itself. It is not more or less than that. It does not need someone else’s view on it to be of worth. It just is.
The same is also true of our body. As you sit reading this, feel your relaxed hand without looking at it, feel it from the inside………… Let it be palm up. Feel the known world, your hand and the unknown world, everything around the hand. The hand is very alive, and like nature is just growing like the grass grows. The nails grow, the skin grows, the blood inside the hand moves, it comes and goes. The bones are made, disintegrate and are replaced. All of this is just happening. When I give my attention to it what I can feel is the same presence that I feel in nature, the same aliveness. Even when I am asleep this hand is still sensing. What’s more it does not sense into the future. It does not sense into the past. It just meets the moment, moment by moment. To rest in the body is to use this presence, this naturalness of the body to help us come into the present. The body is always in the present even when we are not.
Take the breathing for example. We continue to breathe no matter what. We may want to die but we keep on breathing. We are happy and we breathe, we are sad and we breathe. We breathe when we are asleep. It is a constant rhythm and as such it is a great metaphor for reality. This breathing and this hand are close to the Tao. My hand, my body and my breathing are one with the natural world. So if we are in the first principle, there is a sense of energetic fullness, of being filled out, unmoved, in a positive way, undistorted if you like.
To be in the body Unlike the natural world we have self awareness and an ability to self reflect, to come away from the direct experience of something. This has both its positive and negative sides. The positive is the ability to contemplate, to think about something. The negative aspect, because we are separated from it, is to have a reaction to something. We like it or we don’t, we want more or less of it. The problem is that when we do this we often leave our presence, we leave the present moment and are caught by our thoughts and feelings about that thought or emotion.
For instance, supposing I could change our reality. In this new reality, where ever your mind goes your body will travel. In your normal reality your mind can think about what John said to you yesterday in the wine bar and although your mind has gone back to yesterday and the wine bar, your body is still here in the present. However in this new reality, when you think of the wine bar yesterday, your body disappears from this room and goes back to yesterday. If there was someone else in this room with you they would notice that you had left. Isn’t that how it is? You are talking to someone and you can see them leave. The eyes go blank or begin to look down and they have a sense of being preoccupied, like talking on an internal phone to someone else whilst you are sharing your thoughts with them. How often have you driven down a motorway and not known how you got where you are? How often have you been reading a book and not taken in whole pages? You were not there, your body was, something was driving, was reading, but you were elsewhere. So now, in this new reality, with this understanding that if your mind flies away so do you, where do you have to go in yourself, to let the body stay here with you as you read?
To be in the present moment Many spiritual disciplines ask us to stay in the present moment. For the mind it is difficult, but for a mind based in the body it is more easy because the body already does this. In this new reality of the first principle, if you are embodied, resting in your body, you will be in the present. It is just a matter of coming back again and again.
There was and perhaps still is a school of Tibetan Yogis who were famous for their simple precepts and practices. The precept was “Keep the mind in the Body and the Bum on the Ground”. Their practice was to collect a pile of stones and when they got up in the morning and were ready to practise, they would sit in the doorway of their hut or cave. Every time they had a thought which took them into the future or the past, in effect they had left their body. Every time they noticed this they would pick up a stone and move it from one side to the other. As the day wore on the pile on the left would get transferred to the right – then they would begin again.
Gradually this simple method would force them to take note of the fact that they had left and they would begin to stay, more and more, longer and longer. The present moment is blissful and the more in the moment they were, the more blissful they became. It is said they got so blissful that they would begin to hover and that’s when the second part of the precept became important. “Keep the bum on the ground.” Stay grounded and on this earth.
The spine To practise the first principle by being aware of our fullness or energetic presence can be difficult to practise as it is not obvious enough. One of the things we can do to help us stay in the body is to have a sense of the line of the spine. If I were to ask you to take a position which would have a good posture, that would be one thing. But try this. Have a sense of nobility, or of your own sense of self worth, no matter how small.
Now as you read this allow yourself to change your posture, to let how you are sitting mirror and embody this new feeling. You will find that you are now more in the middle of yourself. So having a sense of the inner feeling is mirrored in the outer posture, the outer posture is the clothing of the inner feeling. The spine, or this sense of being collected inside, invites us back into the body, into the present. This spine is with us all the time, so if you take the dog for a walk every day you can take your spine too.
If you walk to the bus each morning, use that time to explore this gift. Try walking around the supermarket with this sense of being upright and in the middle of yourself. If you allow this gift you will find that you are resting in your body.
Energetic fullness Earlier I mentioned the quality of fullness that can be found in the physicality of a resting hand, relaxed and at ease in the skin. It is the same with the energy body a sense of vibrational flowing aliveness. In that moment of being aware of the hand, you will also notice that you are just present, in the moment experiencing the hand. The awareness just is. It is also in the present unmoved by thought. This too is a sign of the first principle.The body, the energy, the awareness all manifesting the first principle.
The keel However if the spine is a good way of accessing the first principle through the body, then the image of a keel is a good image for a more internal quality. Think of a sail boat without a keel. On a windy day the boat will be blown over. But if there is a keel, something that grounds the boat in the water, then this keel allows the boat to transfer the power of the wind into action. What gives us a keel? The sense of spinal alignment. Being in touch with our nobility or self worth gives us a keel. I don’t give myself away when I have a sense of that. If you use the spine as a marker it will show you the inner keel.
Your Truth On another level, truth gives us keel. How many of us ignore the truth of our knowing in order to get by? Too much of this and soon we have lost the ability to know what is our truth. Then we have to start asking others, or following fashions or norms of behaviour. We follow rules because we don’t know any more. But to ask, “What do I feel about this?” or “What do I know about this?” before asking another is to start putting your roots back into your truth. This builds a being of integrity.
Let’s take a difficult example. If we consider a time when we are really contracted in fear or doubt, a time when life has collapsed and we feel defeated. If we can own the feeling, Yes it’s true, a sense of single weightedness comes, we are not fighting it any more. We become collected. We have come back from being lost in our feeling by acknowledging it. The one who acknowledges it is the one who can do something about it. The one is taken over by it is the one who is a victim of it. So this knowing, this sense of the truth, the root of our experience, is also the first principle.
The spine as a mirror So how can we know what’s going on? How can we know when we are in or out of our root? How can we know when the keel has been lifted out of the water and we are vulnerable to the wind? When something frightens us or threatens us and we lose ourselves, our root, this leaving distorts our natural shape and changes it. The mind moves. When the push comes, it is not met by steadiness. Sometimes we collapse as we withdraw away from the threat, and sometimes we become hard as we resist and fight it off. If we come into the body, the first thing that we see is this continually changing shape, sometimes full sometimes empty and sometimes a balanced keel or spine. The spine is a wonderful mirror. The body is reacting to the mind, the mind is reacting to perceived threat or challenge. But the ocean is not divided by the fish which swim in it. When the great white shark swims through the ocean, the ocean is not divide by it. So if we rest in the alive presence of the body rather than collapsing into the reactive separateness of the mind, we learn to stand before things. We all know the image of the two gunslingers or the two Samurai facing each other. The reality of many of these encounters was that the one who walked away was not necessarily the fastest or the one with the best technique, but the one who was least moved by the threat of death. This enabled him to move with a fluidity and steadiness that the fear or reactivity of the other one would not allow. The martial artist of life knows that this first principle of embodiment is the foundation to all movement. The quality of the one who dances with the dangers of life is the one who meets a threat with a fluidity and creativity that fear can never match.The gift to the world of embodiment, of resting in the middle, of having a keel, is that our natural aliveness has room and permission to flourish.
To sum up This first principle means to stand before something. To be present. To be unmoved. To be complete. To rest in the circle. To be in the centre. To be rooted. How to do this? First let the awareness join the aliveness of the body, this brings you back. Within this body find your spine, your keel or felt sense of self worth, your nobility if you like – this means you won’t give yourself away. Allow this to fill you and collect you. From here, own what you know, know your truth and allow yourself to follow this in any way that feels authentic and yours. Questions:Where do you withdraw in life?Where do you give yourself away?Instead of this in where in your life are you ready to be seen?