Iron Wrapped in Cotton - the Tai Chi of Mental and Physical Well-Being
May 31, 2009
One of the most interesting magazine articles I've ever read is in the June, 2009 issue of the Atlantic. The article explores a 72-year study, following young Harvard students from the 1930s until now, an amazing study of the changes that people go through in their lives, trying to ask the question -- what makes us happy, and what factors create a happy and well-adjusted life.
Some young men who were apparently well-adjusted and happy ended up killing themselves as adults. Others, who were immature or pessimistic as young men, changed over time and became better adjusted.
If you reach age 50, there are factors that seem to play a part in whether you will be happy or even alive at age 80. A man with at least 5 of the following traits was more likely to be "happy/well" at age 80 -- education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, exercise, healthy weight, and the ability to make mature adaptations to life's events.
Men who had 3 or fewer of these traits were much more likely to be "sad/sick" at age 80 -- or dead.
The relationships you have with people seem to be a major factor in longevity and happiness. Those with poor relationships are in trouble.
Of those who were diagnosed as "depressed" by age 50, 70% of them were dead or chronically ill by age 63.
What does this have to do with Tai Chi? Plenty, in my opinion, especially if Chi Kung (qigong) is included as part of your personal practice and lifestyle.
Tai Chi has been described as "iron wrapped in cotton." The movements appear very relaxed, and yet because of the establishment and manipulation of the ground path and peng jin in the body structure, there is great strength beneath the appearance of relaxation and flexibility.
Through the practice of Tai Chi and Chi Kung--exercises that help you calm the mind and body and "center" yourself--you learn to maintain mental and physical balance. In my view, and in my experience, this balance and understanding of the nature of things can give you an emotional iron wrapped in the cotton of a happy or relaxed demeanor.
I'm 56 years old. In my life, I have struggled to make a living; I have lost a daughter; I have been bankrupt; I have lost jobs (as recently as last year); I have made bad decisions on who to marry, resulting in terrible heartbreak--and yet I feel as optimistic and happy today as I was when I was 20 years old and felt that anything was possible.
Through all of these events, I have learned and attained skill in the internal arts (my passion); I have achieved a wonderful marriage with a loving wife (Nancy); I have raised two daughters who are smart and funny and loving; I have grandchildren that I adore; I have made a positive impact in the lives of young broadcasters who I hired and coached to be successful; I've made a positive impact in the lives of kung-fu students; I've overcome financial hardship and forged a media relations career that earned a decent salary; and currently, after losing my last job due to the economy, I have launched my online internal arts school and have never been happier in any previous job in my life. I absolutely love waking up each morning to work on this.
I believe you can achieve emotional iron wrapped in cotton through the practice of Tai Chi and Chi Kung. Through the Eastern philosophies that I've studied since the early Seventies, you realize that there is no one to blame when things go wrong. Bad events and good events are part of the yin/yang of life. You must accept hard times if you accept good times. When things are very good, you can bet that something will go wrong at some point, or a tragedy might happen. Likewise, when things are very bad, you can get through it by understanding the yin/yang of nature--that sooner or later, the wheel turns and the positive returns if you just hang in there and don't give up.
When I first began practicing Chi Kung, I calmed the mind and body, put part of my mind on my dan t'ien, and mentally detached. One of my favorite things is to stand outside and do Chi Kung, feeling the wind, listening to the birds, as I detach from the day-to-day and try to feel myself a part of nature--of all the sounds and energy around me. I am part of the same energy that made the stars, the planets. the black holes, the wind and snow, and the warm sunlight.
There is a peace and comfort in this feeling, and there have been moments of enlightenment during these Chi Kung experiences that give me a deeper insight into the nature of things. Most of us are self-centered. When bad things happen, we ask, "Why me?" We take it all very personally, and for some people, that produces emotional reactions that are unhealthy. Sometimes we blame invisible beings -- blaming God for bad things that happen to us.
We all have the ability to guide our lives. The decisions we make have consequences. We can choose the right path or the more destructive path. We can choose to love people and do good deeds, or we can be selfish. We can choose to create laughter in others or we can turn an angry or intense face to the world. We can look at things as having an impact on only us, or we can try to create win-win situations and see that we are connected to everyone and everything.
But despite all of our best intentions and decisions, bad things will happen. Someone we love will develop a fatal illness. Someone we love will die. We will lose a job through no fault of our own. We may find ourselves in financial difficulty. We may put our trust in a partner or spouse who betrays us. There are things that happen outside of our control, and it requires emotional iron to ride out the storm.
A lot of uncertainty and unhealthy feelings can happen when we look at ourselves as the center of the universe. A different feeling happens when you contemplate your part in the universe and how connected you are to everything and everyone. You are part of it, not the center of it.
There is another recent post on this blog that describes how to begin your Chi Kung training. Relaxing the mind and body, putting part of your mind on your dan t'ien, and detaching your mind from your daily problems and activities--that's the first step. From there, you train yourself to recapture this feeling when you face a crisis, a problem, or a tragedy. This understanding and ability helps you build the emotional iron that you need to cope with the unexpected events that life throws at you.
Last year, a week before I lost my job, I was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation -- a heart problem created by too much electrical activity in the heart. Instead of beating normally, my heart often raced and fluttered, setting up a dangerous condition that could lead to stroke.
On top of the job loss, this came as a shock. I had always been the picture of good health. So I decided not to worry about it. My goal was to return to normal. I underwent three heart surgeries last year and had my heart problem fixed. During the last surgery, I aspirated something from my stomach into my lungs and developed a horrible pneumonia that I'm still trying to overcome.
During all this, I launched my online school, created more than 300 video lessons, e-books, and other material, I've produced 7 new instructional DVDs, and I've continued to practice and improve my skills.
The job loss and the heart problems were temporary things that I would outlast, I decided. Hanging in there, waiting for the yang part of the circle to cycle back around, and continuing to be positive about the future--it has become a natural reaction to events.
Life can throw anything it wants at me. It can't damage the iron beneath this cotton. We are born and we die, and in between those two events, there is a journey that includes tremendous highs and horrible lows. Accepting that fact is step one in living a well-adjusted and healthy life. I learned this through the study of philosophy and the practice of Chi Kung and Tai Chi.