Long River Tai Chi Circle

A Short History of a Tai Chi Player
excerpt from "Gateway to the Miraculous"

“…By the mid sixties the Vietnam War had started to pick up steam, accelerating the changes in society. Cracks began to appear in the prison walls of the “dark ages” that American society had fallen into after the end of World War II.

As for my personal psychic prison, the turning point arrived. I discovered Professor Cheng Man-ch’ing, a man whose being radiated honesty, power, and joy.

“To study Tai Chi Chuan means to learn to relax,” were his first words to my beginners’ class, and it was his constant message. “Relax. Let go of all tension, all hardness. Be soft. Hardness is the discipline of death; softness is the discipline of life. So, wherever you identify tension or hardness, let it go. Relax completely. This is what it means to study Tai Chi Chuan.”

Leaving my first class in 1967, I felt as if I were floating on air.

From deep inside myself I reached out like a drowning man and grabbed the lifeline. Without understanding the process, I began to let the principle of Cheng Man-ch’ing’s Tai Chi begin to dissolve my brittle but carefully constructed personality.

The next two years passed like a dream. I learned the Ta Chi form and felt that for the first time since I was a child I was living vibrantly. My long-held wish that life would be a joyous adventure was coming true.

I stopped worrying about succeeding and fitting in. I let my hair grow long, quit my part time job, stopped writing, and got a divorce. I threw myself into the anti-Vietnam War movement, discovered sexuality, became creative.

I took my inspiration from many sources – rock music, psychedelic drugs, hippies, leftists – but at the core was a little Chinese man who said, “Relax. Let go of all your tension. Relax completely.”

The fifties had made it very hard, but the sixties made it too easy. To help make the war palatable to the American people, Lyndon Johnson promised them “guns and butter.” In order to deliver on that promise, the government borrowed heavily on the treasury. Eventually the piper would be paid, but for a while the economy flourished. Lots of money was around to support frugal hippies who just needed a space to crash. Drugs were abundant and cheap. Sex required little or no responsibility.

There was a moral center to the counter-culture and anti-war movement – they represented great, positive change – but there was also flaccidity and self-indulgence.

I heard Professor Cheng when he said, “Relax.” But it was only one half of a whole. The other half, to which I paid less attention, is the sense of discipline, integrity, and rootedness. Only when you are in balance can you relax and let go of the tension and hardness.

I had glimpsed the principle, which allowed me to embark upon my great adventure, but I lacked grounding and understanding in depth.

Forsaking the innocence and clarity that had launched me, I used my few years of martial arts training to erect a fantasy persona – the super-warrior.

There was a shot of me on TV at a demonstration, blocking a policeman’s club and defying another on horseback. “Who is that guy?” people began to ask.

At another demonstration, a heckler tried to grab my beard. Six years had passed since the first incident, and I had learned a little something in the meantime. As he pulled, I pushed. He seemed to fall back an unbelievable distance; at fifty feet he was still stumbling backward in amazement, picking up speed as he went, his arms pinwheeling, his legs flying out.

Despite this thrilling first application of Tai Chi, my image as the ant-war movement “super-warrior” was mostly illusion, smoke, and mirrors. But in the army of the powerless, warriors were desperately sought. By the end of the sixties, I was near the forefront of the anti-war movement.

I believe that it was Oscar Wilde who said, “There can be two tragedies in a person’s life. One is that they never get what they want. The other is that they get it.”

My myth was succeeding much too well, especially with the vast police establishment of the time. After all, considering the money and manpower they were expending, they needed an opponent of violence and aggression, not “flower power”.

At the Democratic convention in Chicago ’68, in the control room of the government’s massive police operation against the demonstrators, there was a chart listing the leaders of the enemy forces. And my name was at the top.

The event that most defined my myth to the police was during the week prior to the convention when I “taught” Karate in the park, on national television, concentrating on techniques to assault policemen.

A month after the convention, the poet Allen Ginsberg, who later became a student of Cheng Man-ch’ings Tai Chi Chuan, remonstrated with me. “You helped create a vibration of fear and violence. Why didn’t you teach Tai Chi instead of Karate?”

“That’s a very good question,” I answered, still wearing the cast on my arm and stitches in my head from the severe beating I’d received at the end of the convention.

My personal descent into pain and paranoia was paralleled in the movement in which I was a part. The election of Richard Nixon, which my actions helped bring about, changed the game. No longer did we happily cry, “Make love, not war.” The anti-war refrain became “Bring the war home.”

It wasn’t fun anymore. Though I still managed a couple of rounds of form a day, and even to occasionally attend class, I didn’t have much time for Tai Chi. I had become a terrorist. Instead of “relaxation,” my life turned into a desperate conspiracy. My new playthings were guns and dynamite.

Finally it became a constant nightmare. I awoke each night chilled, soaked in a pool of sweat. I felt guilty to be alive when others had been killed, and terrified of the knock at the door in the middle of the night that would mean I had been found out.

I went to Cheng Man-ching for advice. I told him that I was involved in a dangerous enterprise that I no longer had the stomach for, but I felt I owed it to my friends not to abandon them.

“Leave that bad place,” he said. “Don’t go there anymore. And you don’t need to worry about what people will think of you. Just leave it in my hands. Come here and learn Tai Chi.”

Did he have a sense of what was going on in my world, or was it like his Push Hands – all he knew was where my energy wanted to go, and he was just helping me get there?

I was at a crossroads. If I continued on my present path, I felt I would be killed. If I withdrew from activism, entering Professor’s monastery, as I thought of it in my mind, I would survive and perhaps someday become in reality the warrior that I was now only in fantasy.

Turning my back on my comrades and the war, I got a room and a part time job, and became a dedicated student of Tai Chi Chuan. From 1970 through ’75, I studied seriously with Professor, eventually becoming an assistant, and practicing Push Hands about six hours a day, seven days a week...”

"Gateway to the Miraculous" -- Copyright © 1994 by Wolfe Lowenthal - All rights reserved.