Most martial arts make a show of being hard, strong, and fast. By contrast, Tai Chi is calm, centered, and peaceful. It is a mystery to most people how something so peaceful-looking can be used for self-defense purposes. Yet, in ancient China, it was revered as one of the most effective fighting styles. So what is the secret?
I first learned the secret of Tai Chi on my sixteenth birthday when Ch’ing tossed me the keys to his car and said, “Let’s try out that new learner’s permit.”
I jumped at the opportunity to get a driving lesson. A license is everything to a teenage boy. Without one, dating is impossible. Thinking we’d start slow, I asked, “Are we going to stay in the neighborhood?”
“Head to the Interstate,” he answered.
I felt my stomach flop. I’m not sure what I expected, but Ch’ing told me to relax and not overreact. “Just point it between the lines, Grant. If you remember to make small adjustments, then you’ll be okay.”
Gulping, I backed down the driveway and did what he said. I figured he’d offer more driving instruction, but instead, he talked about his life in the monastery.
“Once a year, the old monks descend the mountain with food, wine, and medicine,” Ch’ing said. “First, they tend to the sick. Afterwards, they throw a huge party for the villagers, entertaining them with stories and martial arts demonstrations.”
“I wish I could watch them do Kung Fu,” I said. “Ch’ing, what is the ultimate martial art?”
Without hesitation he answered, “Tai Chi.”
“Yea, right,” I said. “It’s so slow. How could anyone fight with that stuff? I mean, it’s for old men, isn’t it?”
He didn’t answer. Instead, he said we needed gas and told me to take the next exit. Ch’ing went inside to pay as I began pumping fuel into his old convertible Cadillac.
For the first time, I gave our surroundings a good look. It was a very rough area. The streets were empty. All the other businesses looked closed. Most of the buildings in the immediate area were boarded. Vacant structures were covered in gang graffiti. The convenience store windows were covered with bars. I realized this was a very scary place.
As I surveyed my surroundings, I saw something move in the shadows. I couldn’t quite make it out at first. Slowly, a sinister figure emerged and took shape. His face was hidden by a hooded sweatshirt. He paused for what seemed like an eternity, and then began to move in my direction.
I did not like the looks of this at all. I felt my heart start pounding and I couldn’t catch my breath. My blood pressure increased a notch with each menacing step. By the time he stopped a few feet in front of me, I was in a full blown fight or flight state.
Time slowed. Sweat trickled down the small of my back. He shifted his feet and mumbled something unintelligible. It was a strange garbled sound. I wasn’t even sure it was speech. So much information can be gained about a person in just a few sentences. If you listen carefully, you can read their intentions. I learned nothing from the garbled sounds coming from him. I was frozen. I waited.
I tried to see his face…read his eyes and expression. Even at close range, his face was still obscured. He was like a shadow and it totally creeped me out. He spoke again. I still didn’t understand him. This time I responded, but my voice cracked before coming out high and sharp. Damn, I didn’t mean to do that.
He snorted in disgust and reached for his pocket. He was going for a weapon. My only chance was to hit him hard and fast. I was a split second away from attacking when I heard Ch’ing say in a warm friendly voice, “What can we do for you friend?”
Ch’ing had appeared out of nowhere. He quietly sided up to the stranger and put his arm around him. His manner was friendly. The embrace was warm. He used the connection to trap the mugger’s arm against his body. The hand reaching for the weapon was immobilized in the thug’s pocket. Ch’ing’s smile never wavered. His kindness was genuine. His control of the situation was absolute.
The shadow turned to look at Ch’ing. For the first time, I could see the mugger’s face. It quickly shifted from hatred to shock and confusion. Ch’ing’s appearance had been so unexpected. His lighthearted and friendly demeanor was equally astonishing.
As I processed this unexpected turn of events, I witnessed the most amazing transformation. Slowly, the mugger’s face changed until it mirrored Ch’ing’s warmth and friendliness. He visibly relaxed. His eyes began to twinkle just like my teacher’s. Ch’ing repeated his question. This time more softly, “What can we do to help you friend?”
After handing him a couple of cigarettes, Ch’ing gave him a pat on the back and sent him off into the night. His parting words were, “Be careful my friend. It can be dangerous out there.”
We climbed into the car and started for home. Neither of us spoke for a while. I was thinking about what could have happened and my hands started shaking. I needed to talk about it so I asked Ch’ing, “What happened back there?”
“Tai Chi lesson,” he answered.
“It’s easy to hurt people,” said Ch’ing. “That takes little skill. The greater skill is to diffuse aggression without causing harm. The best way to do that is to win the fight before it begins. “Nip it in the bud,” to quote your great American philosopher, Barney Fife.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “That wasn’t a fight.”
He looked at me and said softly, “Then, why are your hands still shaking.”
I thought I had hidden it. I should have known better. Ch’ing doesn’t miss anything. I knew better than to give him a bullshit answer.
“I thought he was going to kill me,” I said. “It scared me.”
Ch’ing patted me on the shoulder.
“You did good,” said Ch’ing. “You stood in the face of danger and didn’t overreact.”
More honesty from me, “The truth is I was about to punch him when you appeared out of nowhere.”
“The better strategy is to embrace rather than destroy,” replied Ch’ing.
“How do I do that?” I asked.
“Join energy at the onset of conflict,” said Ch’ing.
“Never run from conflict,” said Ch’ing. “Enter a dangerous situation and lead the attacker to safety. That is true martial mastery. Anything else falls short of the objective of an enlightened master.”
That’s exactly what Ch’ing did. If I had not seen it for myself, I would have thought he was talking about an unrealistic philosophy.
“Can you teach me Tai Chi?” I asked.
“Tai Chi is for living,” said Ch’ing. “It is about balance. The symbol people call the yin-yang symbol is a graphic representation of Tai Chi. It depicts opposites in balance. Opposites need each other. Light does not exist except in relationship to dark. Good and evil define one another. Grant, did you think that young man at the gas station was evil?”
“I thought he was bad guy,” I confessed.
Ch’ing pressed, “Do you wish there was no bad in the world, Grant?”
I answered without thinking. “Yes, I do. Then, we would have a perfect world, don’t you think?”
Ch’ing shook his head. “Good and bad define each other. If bad ceases to exist, then, so does good. When good and bad are out of balance, our life is filled with turmoil. The goal is to embrace life as it is. It does no good wishing things were different. If you can manage this, then you will be able to smile in the face of danger.”