In the cosmology of Taijiquan, before there is yin and yang, there is wuji: the infinite field of energy, the Universe, the state of energetic potential prior to any differentiation.
Within this idea is another: that the differentiation is temporary, that what’s always true is the flow of one to the other. Any ascendancy of yin is temporary, transitional; any ascendancy of yang shares the same characteristics.
To practice Taijiquan (“tai chi”) is to develop a vivid awareness of this dynamic. A beginners’ exercise, yin yang hands, aims to assist the practitioner with this work: a stick about the length of one’s forearm, called a “bang”, is held between the palms and moved from a vertical position on one side of the body, to a horizontal position in front of the body, to a vertical position again on the other side of the body. The side of the body near the stick is “substantial” while the other side is “insubstantial”, a status which alternates with the movement from side to side.
At the end of an hour-long boxing class, the tradition at my gym is for the trainer to say: “Let those hands go.” This is the signal to empty the tank – any energy you’ve got left should be used up. God forbid you should leave a workout without being able to say you gave it your all.
One morning, I practiced a one-two combo, a jab and a straight, on one of the large hanging bags, keeping it simple so I could focus on my stance, which was giving me trouble. I varied my pace, throwing quickly and then slowly; I varied the height of my stance, practicing body shots from a low squat as well as shots at eye-level. I varied my power: I threw jabs that were just meant to be annoying with straights meant to knock someone out. I varied the regular fight stance with a modification inspired by tai chi practice: a slight roll forward of the upper torso pushes the chi down towards one’s center of gravity, making for a much more powerful punch. I varied how I felt: indulging in a sense of anger, then maintaining a sense of calm.
An image came to me during this workout: in my mind’s eye, I saw a small, wooden dollhouse door in the middle of my chest. The width of the doorknob was about a third of the door height; if it had been to scale, it would have been too small for a child to get his or her fingers around it.
Behind that door was all the Fury in the world. Fury with a Capital F. I started to worry that this meant I had some horrible, hidden reserve of anger that I was going to have to process; additional years of therapy loomed before me and I gulped.
A dialogue then emerged: my thoughts were in conversation with an Intelligence that was assuring me that no, this was not about any anger in me, it wasn’t even about me. I was simply being assured that all the power in the world that I would ever need was just right behind that tiny door, available to me any time I needed it. I could tap into it at will and it would be there, right behind that tiny door in the middle of my chest.
The significance of the small door also seemed to be a reassurance: all the power in the world would never flood into me and overwhelm me. The small door meant that I would never be overwhelmed or overcome in any way. It was only a resource, meant to support me if I needed it, whenever I needed it. The access was mine to control.
I told this story to two boxers I know; one replied, “Oh, yeah, I remember when that happened to me.” This was no special message intended for me: it was just a truth that one learned on this particular path.
And somehow, the dollhouse door led to an insight about why might isn’t right: if everyone has access to all the power in the world any time they want, then power isn’t a reliable differentiator. A two-minute scene in the “Homeland” Season 2 finale provides a perfect illustration. (Spoiler alert here: if you haven’t seen Season 2 and plan to, stop here!)
Quinn, a CIA “soldier”, has found his way into the bedroom of his superior, the Director of the Counterterrorism Center at the CIA, David Estes. Estes discovers him seated in a corner in the dark and is startled; Estes has just taken off his shirt and the camera captures him from the side, a large, well-developed bicep taking up most of the center of the screen. Estes is “substantial”, with a large bicep to illustrate that; Quinn, small and seated, is “insubstantial”, actually in trouble because he has not followed orders.
The camera closes in on Quinn and we notice that there is something in his lap; the camera cuts to Estes, and when it cuts back to Quinn at closer range, we find out that that something in his lap is a gun. Quinn’s “substance” is waxing, Estes’ waning. Quinn stands and approaches Estes to confront him: not only is he not going to follow the order to kill Brody, no one else is going to do it either, or Estes will face the consequences. “Because I’m the guy who kills bad guys” is Quinn’s final line in the scene. As if to acknowledge that the power and substance have now shifted completely to Quinn, Estes looks down, the energy visibly draining from his features. (And kudos to actor David Harewood for that!) In the space of this two-minute scene, we witness the power shifting thoroughly from one man to the other.
And we know that it can shift again: we know that Estes can pick up the phone and in a matter of minutes arrange to have Quinn assigned to a critical, dangerous mission in Darfur for which he is absolutely the only suitable guy. He doesn’t, in fact, and the story goes on but we have an acute sense of how the landscape of power can and does change in a heartbeat.
So, what’s true is unity, what shifts is power. A gospel passage warns against building a house on sand, not because God will give you demerits if you do so but because your house will fall down. Do not trust to might or power, since it can be gone in the very next move, like sand.
It is this same reality that Jesus taught, using a utopian image from the Torah of Jubilee (e.g., Luke 4), a spiritual practice by which the inequities within a community would be corrected every couple of generations. It may have been an aspirational image only, as utopian images usually are, but that does not diminish its appeal. It is only when power is shared equally, when there are no power inequities that love can exist. And the great commandment of the Judaism that Jesus was shaped by was to love: to love God and neighbor. And love can only exist, by definition, where there is freedom, where “power over” isn’t at play.
To forget this is to build a house on sand.
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Christine, thanks so much for posting this. It’s a fascinating piece and I am glad I had the chance to read it.