First Balance, Then Movement

I am walking blindfolded through the woods near Hollyhock. I am sweeping my feet along the ground in front of me in order to feel the path. Tom, who is my guide (I guide him for half of the trip) has pretty much let me feel my way forward on my own. I am pleased with my progress , but when I announce how confident I feel in my ability to navigate the woods blind, it turns out I have wandered off into the ferns, and he amusedly guides me back onto the path. Now we are approaching Judyth’s deck where we practice T’ai chi. The path is very difficult here. Tom tugs on my jacket to slow me down. “Do the Crane thing,” he says, and I go into the stance “White Crane spreads wings”, my right hand sweeping up above me head to ward off a high blow, my left hand sweeping down to ward off low. I step forward and feel the roughness of the bark of the tree slanting across the path at head level. I move under it, and continue shuffling forward toward the deck.

Hollyhock is a holistic center on Cortes Island, which is between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland. There were three separate workshops going on at Hollyhock the week I was there. There was a shamanism workshop, an Afro-american singing workshop led by Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock, and the t’ai chi workshop of which I was a participant. Each group had a very different population.The shamans were off on an intense journey. They would march off in the morning, accompanied ominously beating frame drums, looking half delighted and half in dread. They tended to stick together, and their separateness made them the butt of jokes. The other campers thought about playing pranks on the shamans, but we didn’t have the nerve because nobody was sure what kind of damage a pissed off shaman might do.

The singing group was more open to non-participants. I spent a fair amount of time in the hot tub singing with them. I got to use the gospel voice that I found behind the circus tent at Camp Winnarainbow during vocal improv classes there.

The t’ai chi workshop was led by Judyth, Weaver, a small graceful woman in her early 60’s who has been practicing t’ai chi for 31 years. She was a dancer, and you can see that in the lovely lines of her movement. It is fascinating to watch her practice t’ai chi. Many ages of womanhood emerge kaleidoscopically as you watch her move, sometimes girlish, sometimes profoundly old.

We took many classes on Judyth’s t’ai chi deck — a wooden deck that sits high up on a bluff about a mile walk from Hollyhockthrough ferns and under shaggy barked cedars. The view is astounding – over the bay, over small rocky islands in the foreground to larger green curved islands in the middle distance and finally to the blue grey snow clad peaks sometimes hiden with low clouds. It is perfect. When Judyth first had the deck built, the contractor felled a number of trees, and she wept for them. But now there are some more trees down the hill which are beginning to encroach into the view, and sad as she might feel, I think she’ll have them topped. Deer wander by as we practice t’ai chi, and a pair of bald eagles often converse in the treetop. They have oddly high voices for such a large bird, more like seagulls than what you would expect.

The more I did t’ai chi, the more I was able to relax into the movements. That is the first rule of t’ai chi: relax. Judyth talks about sending a root down into the earth, and I did feel more rooted, and began to appreciate the slow sensuality of the movements. It is like being underwater, like scuba diving. There is no point in hurrying your arms anywhere. Move your center and the arms come along floating up and over like kelp. You find your point of balance and only after that do you move on.

One night I was practicing with Howard, a pilot for fed ex. Howard was at Hollyhock because his wife wanted to do the shamanism workshop. He’s trying his best to absorb this t’ai ci stuff, but had certain reservations. “When we’re moving this slow”, he said “the other guy is just going to punch us.” As we were practicing, I hurried through the initial movement. “Oh”, I said to him “I forgot to sink my root.” “That’s what she said”, he replied, and we were unable to continue for laughing. It is a long way to enlightenment.

The entrance to Hollyhock is through a beautiful organic garden. There are flowers everywhere – dense interplantings so that each stand is like a bouquet. Vegetables are interlaced amidst the flowers, and there was a big stand of raspberries that I would wander into and munch like a contented bear. All of the gates have handles or latches made of drift wood, each one different, so that at first you have to ponder it. How does the gate open? This handle pivots , that one slides. The gates and fences are solid below and open on top, with driftwood forming rays above.

There is a beautiful view from the deck, and an irregularly shaped hot tub looking over the bay, and there are round buildings name Raven and Sanctuary and Kiakum with skylights and interesting driftwood integrated into their structures. There are delicious vegetarian meals from the garden.

It is lovely, lovely, lovely, and at first it made me want to scream. It took me a while to figure it out why, but finally I was able to put my finger on it : too much reverence. It felt too precious, like everyone was talking too quietly. It felt like it was draining me of vigor. Some of the guests seemed stunned, etiolated, like a loud noise could knock them over. (Etiolate – to make a plant pale by depriving it of sunlight. A composition teacher once described one of my pieces as etiolated, and I saved the word for the aptness of its barb.) As if the thoroughly protective place also saps some of the strength one gains from standing on one’s own legs.

When talking about it later, I was reminded of Carl Jung’s dream, where God craps on the church. For me, reverence must be balanced by irreverence (and vice versa) The deeper the reverence, the louder the barabaric yawp has to be on the other side to balance it.

Happily, I soon found the irreverent members of the crowd and so managed to achieve balance and enjoy Hollyhock. And then I could see that sometimes people were talking quietly because they did not need to talk loudly to be heard. And sometimes, they just needed to have a little encouragement to get loud. On my last evening, I was having dinner with the lingering t’ai chi-ers, a fairly low-key group. Somebody mentioned the 5 buddhist sins (greed, aversion, sloth, restlessness, and doubt – I am definitely plagued by the last two). I countered by asking for the names of the seven Deadly Dwarves. Someone else asked for the names of Santa’s reindeer, and the only way we could figure that out was to sing Rudolp the Red-nosed Reindeer. Which we did, full-throated, in the dining room. The new arrivals looked at us, unsure. Was this a Hollyhock tradition, and if so, what song would their table be called upon to sing?

The last day of T’ai chi class, we practiced on the beach. Judyth had us group together in threes. The center person closed his/her eyes and put a finger on the back of a hand of each of his/her guides. My guides swooped and spun, hands heading together or in opposite directions. We splashed into the water. We twirled around the beach. In the middle of a twisting dancelike sequence, one of my guides asked me “Are you disoriented?”. “No,” I said, “I don’t care which way I’m facing.”

And so I don’t . I know less and less where I’m going, and find myself more and more at ease where I am. I am relaxing into my own blindness. Now I’m not certain when I’ll get back to New York, and how long I’ll stay there. I’m just trying to find my balance, sweeping my feet out in front of me, feeling the next step. Trying to truly experience the next step. Can I put my weight there? I think so. And step.

You are all my guides, helping me when I need it, but mostly letting me go my own way, which I appreciate. I’m sure at some point I will announce to you all happily “I know just where I am”. At that point you can be sure that I will have wandered far into the ferns. They are lovely this time of year.

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About Tom Weiser
This blog is devoted to the development of the Bad Lama's Guide to Meditation.

2 Responses to First Balance, Then Movement

  1. Pingback: Professor Monkey at the Hot Springs « The Journeys of Thomas Anomalous

  2. Pingback: My Opinion of the Pinyon « The Journeys of Thomas Anomalous

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