One piece of folklore that most T’ai Chi practitioners relish is the notion of the wise, zen-like Master, who is always in command of his or her emotions. A Master who always lives in the present and has deep philosophical insight into the problems that afflict everyday people. This Master wanders through life like the fictional monk, Kwai Chang Caine, played by David Carradine in the 70’s TV show, Kung Fu.
Caine is the mythical ‘Zen-Master’ uses martial arts skills to fight off the bad guys and help others, while maintaining a calm, serene presence at all times.
If you practice T’ai Chi long enough, the myth goes, You too will achieve this kind of enlightened temperament. T’ai Chi practice will make you calm in the most stressful situations. You’ll be able to serenely defeat the bad guys without ever losing your cool or letting your emotions get the best of you.
As much as we all wish this myth was true, unfortunately, it’s not. T’ai Chi people also get upset about silly things, we have arguments, and we feel stress just like everyone else. T’ai Chi practice doesn’t give us any super powers and it doesn’t make us immune to emotional problems or frustrations.
We can get angry depressed, annoyed, or impatient the same as the non-
practitioners. The only difference is that T’ai Chi gives us a healthy way to deal with these emotions. It also gives us a set of life principles that help us deal with these troubles when they arise.
T’ai Chi isn’t magic. It takes a lot of practice and focus to stay calm when things get tough. Even the best T’ai Chi practitioners can lose their cool. But, with practice, you’ll be shocked by how much progress you can make. At least, that’s the way it was for me.
When I was younger, I was a very aggressive driver. I would race from stoplight to stoplight, blow past slower moving traffic, beep my horn at anyone in my way, and was even prone to give others the ‘Chicago Driving Finger’ if they cut me off. -I’m not proud to admit that emotions controlled my driving habits.
After I began practicing T’ai Chi for a while, my attitude towards life began to change. I found even my behavior behind the wheel began to improve.
One night, while I was out driving, a car pulled up beside me and someone from the passenger side blasted an air horn right into my open window.
At first, I thought there was a semi truck roaring at me, so I swerved. But as I watched the car speed away, I realized that it was just a stupid and dangerous prank.
Instantly, I felt my rage well up and I hit the gas to pursue the car. But, as I was coming up to them, I suddenly began to relax. My anger disappeared, my heart rate slowed, and I became calm. It felt strange because my first instinct had been to catch up with the pranksters and tell them off.. maybe even get into a physical altercation. Instead, I felt at ease and in control of my emotions as I relaxed my foot from the gas pedal.
A stop light ahead turned red and the fleeing pranksters were caught at the light. However, I was no longer angry, I just slowly came up beside them.
When I’d first heard the air horn, I imagined that the pranksters were probably some young men; you know, local College kids raising a little hell. But, as I pulled next to the car, I saw it was actually two teenage girls, barely old enough to be driving.
‘Okay,’ I asked, “What’s up with the horn?”
“What horn?” the girl in the passenger seat asked, looking sheepish.
“You know what horn,” I smiled. I wasn’t mad now; just concerned about the game they were playing and that someone might get hurt.
“Oh, you mean this horn,” she said as she flashed a guilty smile and lifted it up to the window.
“Look, just be careful,” I smiled back, “You guys can get into a lot of trouble playing like that and somebody could get hurt” The light turned green and we both drove off.
I was surprised by how calm I felt. The ‘old me’ never would have responded so gently and it felt great to be that in control of my reaction.
I’m sure my T’ai Chi practice had something to do with the change in my driving attitude. I’m no Kwai Chang Caine, but I know that I’m now much more calm behind the wheel.
T’ai Chi doesn’t instantly make us zen masters. It can’t take away all the stress and frustration from our lives, but it’s a useful tool that can help us deal with our problems and handle our emotions.
Practicing the art gives us a chance to calm our mind and take a break from our daily concerns. Following T’ai Chi principles helps us look at and experience stress in a healthier, more effective way.
The thing is, we don’t all have to become Zen Masters. Just learning to better handle our emotional impulses is what the goal of our training is all about.
The problem with the ‘Zen Master Myth’ is that it can cause us to hold ourselves to an impossibly high standard. When we let our emotions get the better of us, we feel like we’ve failed our training. Rather than just learning to accept our emotions as natural and moving on. We forget to acknowledge the progress we’ve made and we’re likely to give up the practice when we can’t sustain our own expectations.
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