My Tai Chi class is a wonderful mix of Taoist movement and philosophy. I loved this phrase as soon as it left a fellow student’s lips: “the journey between two steps.” Thank you, Josette.
I’m still trying to wrap my mind around what it means, but intuitively it strikes me as being the key to almost everything.
We’re always on the way to somewhere, taking the next step on our life’s path. Even before we’ve fully settled into the place we’ve just reached, our intention is making plans for moving to another location—whether it be physical, mental, or spiritual.
Goals, dreams, to-do lists, routines, habits. Whether they be big (“enlightenment”) or small (“eat a snack”) intentions we’re almost always engaged in getting from here to there. Our focus is on a starting and endpoint. The journey between these two steps doesn’t get nearly as much attention.
Yet it should. In fact, Tai Chi teaches that it deserves almost all of our attention. For Tai Chi becomes an empty practice when the student lurches clumsily from one posture to another, losing along the way a rooted sense of centeredness and connection.
I had asked the instructor, Warren, about how to move between two postures in the 24 Form: from single whip to high pat on horse. He teaches this as a transition from a back stance (where most of the weight is on the rear foot) to a more balanced stance facing about ninety degrees to the left, necessitating a step forward with the right leg while turning.
It’s tough. Warren said that it was one of the more difficult moves in Tai Chi. He demonstrated how he does it. I still didn’t understand what he was doing differently than me, though I could see how much better his movements looked than mine.
“I call it bridging,” Warren explained. “That’s not good. It’s when you move from one posture to another as if you were crossing high above two banks of a river. Bridging prevents a smooth, rooted, continuous transition between the postures.” At that point Josette said, “Yes, the journey between two steps.”
If you’re not into Tai Chi this may not make much sense to you. I am into Tai Chi, albeit on a quasi-beginner level, and this barely makes any sense to me. But it’s simple to experience, really.
Take a step. Most of us fall into the stepping leg. Our intention says “step,” our leg moves forward, and we lurch into the new position. Now, focus on the journey between two steps. Sink into the leg that won’t be stepping. Put all your weight on that foot. Then, ever so slowly pick up the stepping leg and move your foot outward just above the ground, putting it down ever so gently, heel first.
That’s a Tai Chi step. Ideally, you feel balanced and connected all along the way. At any point during the transition from one step to another you could change direction, move the stepping foot somewhere else, place it back where it started from, stop and enjoy the scenery from wherever you find yourself.
It’s a whole different thing from lurching—zeroing in on the next place you intend to be and losing touch with the journey that is necessary to get from here to there. In Tai Chi you learn that the never-ending journey is the important thing, not the episodic steps that mark a few points along the way.
The way isn’t the steps. The way is the way. When you take out the journeying from the path, nothing substantial is left. Yet almost all of us get fixated on beginnings and endings, starting points and goals, desires and fulfillments. This moment becomes a chimera, whereas in actuality it is the only thing that is real.
Religions are big into bridging. They put before us distant goals: heaven, enlightenment, salvation, nirvana, paradise, God-realization. The religious focus is a step ahead of where we are now. This is why it’s natural to be attracted to churchlessness after you’ve taken lots of steps within the confines of a church and never enjoyed the promise that always remains out of reach.
Tai Chi is helping me to realize that it’s the journey between two steps which makes life fulfilling. If you’re always focused on where you’re heading, you’re never fully enjoying where you are. Plus, you need to be able to change your mind, to head in a different direction.
Why? Because you want to. Conditions demand it. Just for the heck of it. To do something different. The Tao guides you. No reason not to. To see what it's like to jump off the bridge and flow with the water.
Any reason at all.