What's in a word, a movement, an expression? Everything. Potentially, at least. This is the intriguing premise of "The Beauty of Gesture: The Invisible Keyboard of Piano and Tai Chi," by Catherine David.
To be present in every step means that the forward motion of one's foot, if experienced fully, embodies the whole of reality at a given time.
Being a Tai Chi practitioner myself, I understand what David is saying. The key word here is "fully."
When I'm moving through a Tai Chi form, often my mind is only partially engaged in what I'm doing. So my reality is split between the here and now and the there and then that's the subject of my mental meanderings. This is half-assed Tai Chi.
In Asian traditions, it sometimes takes an entire lifetime to reach that state of consciousness which opens the way to a genuine act. Turning a handle, soldering a joint, cleaning the house – each gesture contains the entire being of the person who performs it.
It's also half-assed anything, as David points out.
Part of the problem is that we don't fully embrace our self as we are at every moment, continually changing in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
How to be sure we are not half-kissing, mechanically stroking, laughing too loudly, simulating emotions? How not to doubt my own sincerity when I smile, when I flirt? How can I fill my gestures, make them real, harmonious, efficient? How can I give the present moment – the only reality – the attention it deserves?
Another problem is imitation. Though proverbially it's the finest form of flattery, and necessary to learn Tai Chi or almost any other skill, at some point it becomes a barrier to future progress.
Accurate aiming is no artifice: it is his own self the archer sends into the center of the target. If the archer is absent from the bow and arrow, the success of his shot becomes a failure, a parody. True accomplishment goes beyond skill and frees itself from the rules, providing the rules have been previously mastered. From up there, they say, the view is unobstructed all around.
My Tai Chi instructor encourages every student to find his or her own unique expression of this art. And everyone does. There's no way around it, because each person has a unique body, a unique mind, a unique spirit, a unique energy.
Metaphysical awe is converted into research. Reflexive consciousness merges into action. The why retreats behind the how. Anxiety is lifted by creating a technique. The question, How can I really be myself? is instantly followed by, What can I do about it?
Behind the question how, calling for immediate practical answers and lifelong reflection, the ontological vertigo begins to fade. I don't know who I am; we'll look into that later. But for the time being, how shall I manage to truly live my life, be who I am, eat what I eat, walk when I walk, hear what I listen to, see what I see, savor my feelings, my sensations, enjoy the world's and art's creatures, make them mine?
Is there, by any chance, a task more important than to live one's own life?
Charan Singh, the Radha Soami Satsang Beas guru back when I joined the organization in 1971, habitually used certain gestures when he gave talks. They were graceful, part of his unique demeanor.
When he'd speak about concentrating during meditation at the "eye center," his right hand would trace a smooth arc up to the spot between his eyebrows, an index finger pointing at the purported spiritual centering point. Other gestures were used when discussing additional meditative techniques.
Charan Singh's gestures were his own, part and parcel of him. But I remember listening to a disciple give a talk who, obviously, wasn't the guru.
This guy did his best to copy Charan Singh's mannerisms, gestures, and speaking style. It was ghastly. I'm sure he thought this was how one honored the guru: by imitating him and setting aside the speaker's own personality.
How it came across, though, was as fakery. Authenticity was absent from the talk. I lost interest in what he was saying almost from the first word. He was like a puppet, the strings being pulled by a misguided sense of what reducing the ego means.
How can I unite the expression of my feelings with their inner truth? Is it possible to overcome that instinctive cheating which causes us to act other than what we really are, makes us foreign to our gestures as if they were someone else's, prompts us to look for truth in its caricature?
The way I see it, to honor whatever has made us who we are – call this God, Nature, Cosmos, Tao, Ultimate Reality, Laws of Nature, anything else you like – is to be just who we are, honestly, truthfully, sincerely, fully.
In the smallest things as well as the largest. In a single step as well as the longest journey.
Nothing has prepared us for the concept that everyday gestures might be philosophical exercises. No one has advised us to pay attention to them, to stop viewing them as chores, to start loving them and perfecting them.