Cameron Conaway sits down with Arthur Rosenfeld to discuss Tai Chi and what’s next for this modern-day monk.
As a writer, Arthur Rosenfeld is the originator of the genre now known as “Kung Fu Noir” and he was, alongside the Dalai Lama, a finalist for the prestigious Books For A Better Life award for his bestseller The Truth About Chronic Pain (Basic Books, New York, May 2003). A graduate of the Russian and Eastern European Studies program at Yale, Mr. Rosenfeld has also completed graduate work in veterinary medicine at Cornell, Biology and Zoology at UC Santa Barbara and in the Writing Program at UC San Diego. Perhaps his truest attainment of knowledge, though, has come through his practice of Tai Chi, which has taken him to some of Asia’s most historic training facilities. In fact, in March of this year he was ordained a Taoist monk at the Chun Yang (Pure Yang) Taoist monastery in Guangzhou, China, the only Westerner ever so honored. In 2011, he won the Tai Chi Master of the Year Award at the World Qigong and TCM Congress in San Francisco, and in August 2012 will receive the Maverick award from the Action On Film Festival, an award previously given to David Carradine, among other martial arts legends. He agreed to answer a few questions for us here at the Good Men Project.
Guys these days are defining themselves through fighting in mixed martial arts. It’s intense, it’s masculine and it’s still very much advertised with testosterone at the forefront. On the surface, Tai Chi seems to be the total opposite. Can you tell us some of the similarities you see between the two and also some of the “fights” that may be within Tai Chi but experienced only by those who practice?
A lifetime of experiences, including coming from a Holocaust survivor family to a deliverance-like time in a South American jungle and incarceration in an Ecuadorean prison for stopping a drunken cop from violating a woman on the street—not to mention years of teaching martial arts—have taught me that violence is the lowest common denominator of human interaction. It pains me that men still define themselves in such a crude way when there is real and important work to be done on the inside and the outside of each of us. That having been said, tai chi is a martial art first and foremost, despite its popularity with New Agers and the elderly. It is nasty if not brutish, sophisticated and elegant, and a masterpiece of energetic and biomechanical efficiency. I do believe that at some point, when an MMA fighter is properly trained in hardcore, traditional, martial Chen-style tai chi, he will do exceedingly well in the cage. Of course, these days it is the degenerative diseases of aging that have the attention of most tai chi players, and, of course, the constant spiritual battle that seekers engage in hopes of achieving emotional equilibrium to go with that much-vaunted physical benefit of tai chi. These battles are losing ones unless we can reach transcendence. Too, tai chi’s physical rewards are subtle and reveal themselves in onion-peel fashion over a substantial period of time. It takes massive daily discipline to practice something whose gifts take time to manifest (nobody becomes a good ring or street fighter after a year or two of tai chi, no matter how many hours a day they practice) and it takes a special kind of person to squelch the competitive urge in favor of the cooperation needed to utilize such tai chi training techniques as push-hands, and thereby reap the gains in sensitivity and relaxation such practice brings.
Arthur, many people practice tai chi for a short period in their lives as a way to practice patience. But to reach the level in the art that you have has taken, quite literally, a lifetime of practicing patience. What is it about tai chi that originally captured your attention and keeps you coming back day after day and year after year?
I have never been a gifted athlete. In fact, both genetics and a sickly childhood conspired to make all physical work an uphill battle for me. That made me concentrate on the intellectual side of life early, and from intellectual inquiry came spiritual seeking. I was always convinced there was more to life than I was being told, and became veritably obsessed with seeing below the surface of the pond. When, like so many folks of my generation, I encountered David Carradine’s TV show Kung Fu, I was enchanted. I so badly wanted to be the blind old monk who understood everything about the world, had such beautiful equanimity, and could hear a cricket break wind at 50 paces. Later, watching Bruce Lee, I wondered if it might be possible to meld mind and body to create both inner peace and the outer strength that had always escaped me. I tried many martial arts styles, got instructors rank in more than one, but found the internal side missing. Then I started tai chi ch’uan, the martial art we’ve been discussing, and an art technically distinct, though based on the philosophical principle of tai chi, which means, strictly, the harmonious interaction of opposing forces. When, after some years in various tai chi variations, I finally met my Chen-style tai chi teachers, Master Max Yan and Grandmaster Chen Quanzhong, the deepest, truest, traditional Taoist training was revealed to me, and many secrets of the Chen family along with it. I learned that authentic tai chi is that most precious of all paths—a true Way that is as endlessly spiritually rewarding as it is consummately physically challenging. Truly, it’s tough stuff. It’s not just a matter of being hard to do. It’s also hard to understand and to stay with long enough to get the kind of results one sees much faster, albeit far more superficially, in other training systems. Only after passing through those gates can one hope to find the real, deep thing. Possibly it is that way to discourage casual dalliance, but my guess is that it’s that way because all really transformational results require long, hard pursuit down a path that is fraught with challenges. I’ve stayed on the boat this long because I’m hopelessly in love with it. I’ve stayed on the boat because to jump overboard is to drown. I’ve stayed on the boat because I’m frankly not much good at anything else. Last, but not least, I’m ashamed to admit that my rebel streak has kept me afloat too. In my youth, frustrated by my saltatory intellect, my father often accused me of being a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. Sadly, though I recognize that to rebel is not to be free—is, in fact, to respond to an external force rather than to work from the highest, best level of internal clarity and intention—I’m afraid on some level I am still trying to prove him wrong.
I’ve heard tai chi described as the martial art that moves slowly in a fast world. As technology bridges global gaps, seemingly brings us news damn near before it happens and has us conditioned to be instantly gratified, what are some palpable ways that tai chi has kept you centered?
Recently I tweeted the observation that though technology makes so much of what we do so much easier, I wonder how much of what we use it for is very important. The flurry of replies was revealing. People are sensitive about the way they spend their time. They are attached to the values they’ve been spoon-fed, and only a brave few are willing to question and challenge the status quo. Our world is filled not only with weapons of mass destruction, but weapons of mass distraction. The speed-and-greed anti-culture that pervades America these days has left most of us with the attention spans of fleas in heat, socially and personally disconnected by those very devices that promise more connection, disenfranchised, lacking purpose, devoured by a consumptive lifestyle, and headed for premature suffering and death at the hands of so-called lifestyle diseases. To any but soldiers, policemen, and the most fanciful martial artists, these are the enemies of greatest concern. Indeed, despite comforts and conveniences, much of modern life is spiritually and psychologically not a very pretty picture. To produce a different one we have to have the clean canvas of an open, questing mind, and a powerful brush with which to paint. Tai chi is such a brush. It lends itself wonderfully to the myriad ways in which individuals are creative, and deep down wish to access their true selves. In my case, my greatest love affair is with the stepping out of distracted thinking and compulsive action (I’ve always suffered from ADHD) into a peaceful, quiet place. Not an hour of any day goes by when I do not think of dancing silently through the trees with Quiet Teach, my favorite partner, the tai chi jian (double-edge straight sword) made for me of folded Damascus steel by my friend Sam Curry. Over and over again, the quiet in my body has fostered quiet in my mind, and that quiet has been reflected in my environment, both in my home life and in my teaching. I had a particularly interesting experience at a Starbucks a few years back, when an altercation turned into a random act of consciousness that drew the attention of NBC News and spread around the world on the Internet.
Lastly, you are considered by many to be the American authority on tai chi but also on Eastern thinking for a Western world. You’ve pulled in huge ratings with your Tai Chi show on PBS, you’ve been featured on countless news programs and you’re a regular contributor at The Huffington Post. What’s next for you?
As a monk, I find that simplification and focus are the buzzwords of my life. I continue to devote myself to hands-on teaching of students locally and around the country, and to work on my first love, writing books. In addition to my 11 published works, three more tomes are in the pipeline. The first, due out in the spring of 2013 is a work on the martial art of tai chi, followed by a more general one on the tai chi lifestyle. The third is a personal favorite, a novelized view of the life of Lao Tze, the philosophical father of tai chi and perhaps the greatest of all Chinese sages. I have a fourth work in line after those are done, another work of fiction, but I’m keeping mum on the subject of that one for now.
Thanks for taking some time out for us here, Arthur. Where can our readers connect with you and stay informed about your forthcoming appearances and writings?
My website is www.playtaichi.com. All my books are available at major online sellers. I would be honored if your readers would “friend” me on Facebook, where I am Arthur Rosenfeld, “follow” me on Twitter, where I am @MachoBuddha, and read my blog on The Huffington Post.
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