7/25/2017 2 Comments
I have a special book of secret transmissions from the Yang family, one of the most well-known styles of taiji quan known today. The ideas presented date back centuries ago, but reading them, it is clear that the words are still very potent for today’s world.
And although the wisdom is revealed in poetry, eloquently phrased, and very esoteric, in this book rests a clue for how to understand the principle of full and empty, or, in modern day grind terms, how to apply the principle of busy and free.
If you’ve been feeling like every second of every day is booked, or even if you do have down time, but feel like it’s not enough for your sanity, let me share with you the guidance of a taiji master.
The Secret of Full and Empty
T’ai-chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Transmissions,
Compiled and translated by Douglas Wile
Empty empty, full full, with spirit
Empty full, full empty as hands
To practice T’ai-chi without mastering
the principle of full and empty,
Is to foolishly waste time without ever
When one has the opponent’s vital point
in the palm of one’s hand; finding empty,
be on guard, but if full, attack.
If we fail to attack the full,
our art will never be superior.
Within empty and full, there is
naturally a full and empty;
If we understand the principle of full
and empty, our attack will never miss the mark.
On the surface, a taiji practitioner might interpret this as wisdom for sparring technique. And this would be correct. Yet you can move deeper into the meaning and apply it to one’s life, the daily and the spiritual.
Take the phrase, “To practice T’ai-chi without mastering the principle of full and empty, Is to foolishly waste time without ever accomplishing anything.”
That is the Chinese martial arts version; here is the Life version:
To go throughout life without applying the principle of full and empty, is to waste time without accomplishing anything.
Empty Bridge, Full of Possibility, photograph by Brea Fisher
Say you’ve been feeling completely stretched in your life, like every second is filled or should be filled with one of the thousands of things you have to do.
Know that feeling? You could really use about five more hours in the day, right? Even just to get a full night’s sleep?
Here’s the thing:
To get more done, you need to do less.
You don’t believe me.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but one of the best ways to make more space for all the things you have to do is by scheduling time for Doing Nothing.
This is doable. You can do this doing-nothing thing. You just need to find the formula that works best for you.
For me, it’s taking one full day out of each week and purposefully setting it aside as a full 24 hours of nothing: nothing scheduled, nothing that must get done asap, nothing that is mandatory, nothing that is urgent, pressing, or critical.
But maybe for you it’s a Do Nothing Day once a month, or a Do Nothing morning once a week.
During these Do Nothing hours there are no "I should be ________ right now”s.
Of course those should-be thoughts come up, but when they do, I use them as a catalyst to take five minutes and really do nothing.
I may be slicing watermelon and have the thought, “I should be sweeping the house right now.” If I notice myself think this, I can decide that as soon as I finish the watermelon slicing I will go sit on a rock and, well, sit. Not meditate, not ponder life’s greatest questions, just sit. I try to do the nothing-est of nothing I can for at least five minutes.
Have you ever really tried to do nothing? It’s hard! You start thinking about things you have to do!
So here’s the thing. You time of Doing Nothing is not ultimately about doing nothing the whole entire time.
Setting aside extended time that you schedule into your week is about having the freedom to do whatever you really want to do, from a place of truly wanting to do it.
And, by the way, “To get it done and off my To Do List” does not qualify as authentic, in the moment, from the heart wanting.
There is a shift that happens when you do this. Afterward you feel a little lighter, a little refreshed, and much more ready to take on all those things you have on your schedule.
When you take time out of your busy schedule to commit yourself to space between doing all the things you have to do, they transform before your very eyes and become things you choose to do— even— things you get to do.
What version of this time of Doing Nothing can you see yourself taking on?
Can you do the once a week full-day scheduled into the calendar as a blocked out go where the wind blows you kind of day?
If that gets you nervous already, can you do a half day of Doing Nothing?
A weekly hour of Doing Nothing?
Start where you can. And commit to it— if this feels like an interesting idea, that is.
The more you give of your time to the space between doing, the more likely you are to hold a more positive outlook on the things you need to get done, which directly leads to your accomplishing more in less time.
Whatever you feel you can commit to, mark it in your calendar and treat it as an appointment that cannot be missed.
So when the taiji master says, “If we understand the principle of full and empty, our attack will never miss the mark,” they speak about martial arts, yes; but more so they refer to a guideline for living one’s life.
Become empty and experience a fullness. Then, when you return to the fullness of daily life, you’ll have an emptiness within that will give you the peace, clarity, and harmony necessary to hit the target of all your goals.
Thank you so much for reading. If you have any insights on this idea of doing less, please share! And if you know any busy people who might benefit by reading this, I would be so very grateful if you sent this their way.
A young girl leans her head into a small wooden instrument, where it rests between a pursed-lipped chin and a shoulder that stiffens when she struggles to find the right note. The song is new, difficult, and coming out in squeaks that occasionally call out, “Err-errrrrk!”
Her teacher guides the young violinist patiently, encouragingly. And when the lesson is finished, the girl runs to her mama and nearly shouts with unbridled excitement, “I’m learning a new song!”
And in the same breath she continues that enthusiastic outburst of joy, jumping up and down and squeezing her happy fists to her face, declaring, “It’s so HARD!”
It’s so hard!
When was the last time you heard that phrase being expressed in joy before? Have you ever? I’m willing to bet it wasn’t coming from an adult if you have.
Since when did the word hard become such a drag? When did we all forget how to get excited about challenge?
My dear gongfu sister shared with me the story above (minus my embellishments), and she told it to me from her perspective as the violin teacher. It came at a very key moment for me, for she and I were about to set down our mats for the very first day of a new class in our Chinese Internal and Martial Arts curriculum at MogaDao.
In its description, the class was presented as “The Challenging Series,” and with yoga being fairly new to me in my gongfu/ taiji/ qigong regimen, I was feeling a little wary.
All throughout that first sweaty, involuntary-grunting, at-points-feeling-like-I-might-cry-or-collapse class, I kept hearing those words bursting out of an exuberant eleven-year-old.
“It’s so hard!”
Balance lost at my third attempt up:
“It’s so hard!” in the tone of “How awesome that I can keep trying again!”
Sweaty feet slipping on the mat, adding to the impossibility of me holding the pose:
“It’s so hard!” like, “Yes! Gimme more! I got this!”
Muscles in my legs trembling in exhaustion:
“It’s so hard!” as in, “I love it when my legs turn to burning jelly!”
The shift in the tone of how you use the word hard gives you an unbelievable amount of leverage for changing your own perspective on the situation.
A Shift in Tone, Photograph by Brea Fisher
When you speak about your challenges as if they are beautiful and glorious and ecstatic and Divine, even the hardest of them become things to look forward to, to take pride in, and to hold as reasons for self-admiration.
The eleven-year-old violinist with the outrageously positive attitude takes great delight in her process of learning the hardest of techniques. Take vibrato— you know, that magical wavering of pitch that happens as if drawn out of the instrument simply because the music itself is just too beautiful to keep steady.
This young student takes every tiny improvement— any millimeter closer to the technique— no matter how small or “insignificant,” and she celebrates that as a victory. She might achieve an aspect of vibrato that we adults might say is “not it, but closer,” and she’s up and running around the room crying, “I can do it! I can do vibrato!”
This celebration of small victories as if they themselves already reach the height of your achievement is a brilliant way to attain the goals you set for yourself that seem so far away.
For me, it would be getting out of Savasana, bowing my “Namaste,” and then springing up off the floor and shouting, “I did it! I did the hard yoga class!”
Life is hard.
I mean, “Life is HARD!” (and I’m smiling with my arms raised into V formation!)
When the hard stuff happens, remember that young violinist. Let her jubilant and wise enthusiasm fill your heart and soothe your mind. Even say it out loud— joyously and with exuberance— “This is so HARD!”
Sometimes you won’t be able to do it. Right-in-the-moment challenges past a certain degree can be like that. That’s ok. Wait a little and when you feel a window, then do it. Bring her in. Let her show you her vibrato.
And you show her your ability to execute a perfect Ardha Mukkha Svanasana (a handstand) even though your adult self sees that you’re really in Dolphin Pose, feet still on the floor, and forearms shaking as they barely hold your head off the floor.
Your child self is jumping up and down with an ear to ear grin shouting, “Look at me! I’m doing it! It’s so hard!”
The wisdom of loving the difficulties of your life lies in your capacity to recognize that in every challenge is a wealth of offering.
Challenges give us so much. They keep us from getting bored; they provide us the opportunity to form alliances with others who are challenged in similar ways; and we grow because of them, whether we “defeat” them in the way we intend to, or not.
A life full of challenges is one that opens the most space for accomplishment.
And that’s something to get excited about.
I hope this helps you as it did me. Let me know if it does. It would make my day to hear.
Want to learn vibrato, too? For real? New Song is an incredibly talented, sensitive, and kind-hearted violin instructor who offers private lessons in the Santa Fe area. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.