‘We are looking for a qualitative difference in the sensations,’ said the Tai’Chi teacher. He performed five seconds of slow movement.
‘Now compare it to this.’ He performed another five seconds, and then grinned. ‘After a month, or a year, or ten years, you might notice the difference.’
Can you see it?’ he said to one of the veterans; their reaction, I didn’t see from the middle of the group.
‘A newcomer might not seen much difference at all. Did you see any?’
I shook my head, a little abashed but mainly amused.
‘But I love seeing people’s first Tai Chi, because it’s often so good. Try just following what everyone else does.’
I knew what he was talking about, intellectually, and a little by experience and extrapolation: it’s the beginner’s mind thing, that there is something weirdly ‘impure’ (as Shunryu Suzuki said in his famous collection) in the practice of someone who thinks of themselves as an expert- or even puts themselves on that scale of nought to Buddha. Even me alluding to some kind of progress puts some ego into the equation, but knowing this, I carry on doing what I think I should be doing- which by that measure, is the best I can, humanly, to practice well.
The paradox continues, because there has been some progress. When I followed the set, awkwardly and with a bit of self-consciousness, there was some relaxing into it, some pleasurable free movement involved that felt like the body guiding itself. While I don’t attempt to put all practices into a structured meta-analysis (I know far too little in order to make such a claim), I’m very happy to make links- and the taste of freedom was there in the movement as much as in any other contemplative practice. It makes me happy to see that. It makes me happy to relax into awkwardness.
‘That qualitative difference’. The phrase was very pleasing to hear. It points to the freedom that is within the everyday, without recourse to any of the various usual evasive human ways of finding freedom: trying to run away from what we find repulsive; destroying what we despise; focusing on the end of a dichotomy that we like and distance ourselves from the other. Instead, it points to the transformation of perception that contemplative practice can provide, by bravely looking at experience and accepting it as wholly as you can as a method and as a way of conducting oneself.
Meditation practice is starting to loosen up because I trust that practice will make that qualitative difference known without my understanding or direction. Instead of trying to eliminate any tightness I feel in my chest, my understanding is that it is part of the process of purification. Any dullness (and I still feel like I spend half of my meditation in a state of torpor) is teaching me patience.
It’s redefining my understanding of humility: that the practice itself will teach me humility, and any attempt to ape humility is in my case an ego game, the appearance of being humble. Trying to be the most humble person in the world is another way of trying to separate myself from others and put myself above them. It’s easy to then fall into another ego-led reaction to that, feeling shame for that suddenly-realised game and calling myself the worst person. The answer of course is that I’m pretty average to be honest, but that doesn’t take away my place in the world. What I can do – and this is more pure a practice – is to relax around my perceived failures, the tough meditations, the frustrated over-analysis. And around the successes, joys, and serene times too, so as not to cling to them. There is a reason why there are factors of enlightenment to be cultivated instead of an Airfix kit to make it. Sitting with ‘bad meditation’ in patience, willing to be taught whatever lesson I trust is being taught to me, ends up being far more rich an experience than fighting to be ‘Zen’. (Well, not always: sometimes it’s just crap. That could be the lesson for that day.) The paradox turns out to be a pleasant one: as one relaxes into a lack of humility, humility emerges as a quality, and humility becomes more natural.
Perhaps I’m not far along enough in my practice to be the kind of person who reaches dazzling heights of concentration, shattering insights; I have consistency of practice to work on, precepts to work on following, grounding to find. Perhaps it isn’t required for my practice, and mine is a ever quieter road after some very dramatic beginnings. Perhaps it will come when required and disappear again when not; the cycle of consolation and desolation. But there is the difference.