One thing that keeps us from really getting the joke in taijiquan—and in life—is this problem of identity: what a thing is.

We learn from school that if we label something we then know that thing. And, to an extent we do…we know about it. We have some idea of what a person or thing is and that is quite helpful in getting us through our day. It has immense practical value. We name stuff and each other so we can think and talk and organize. We can say “this is different from that but similar to that other thing.”

Our ideas about stuff are what we think of when we consider what something is. But when you start playing at the edge, as we do in taiji or meditation, things aren’t so sharply defined. There is a point when it becomes important to differentiate between our ideas about things and the things themselves. And the two are never the same. They can’t be. They are part of the story we tell ourselves based on experiencing something from a particular perspective. Some people freak out when they start to see this, but it needn’t be so scary. And it opens the gates to a world of amazement.

We have learned since infancy to label objects and we’ve gotten pretty good at it. We also learned along the way that 1=1, 1+1=2, and if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…well, then it’s a duck.

While sometimes expedient, none of the above is actually true in any real way. Maybe we could say that the “idea of one can be interchanged with the idea of one for all practical purposes.” But A never really equals A. My ideas about a mountain can never be the actual mountain. The first two lines of the Dao De Jing put it this way:

The DAO that can be expressed
is not the eternal DAO.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal name.

And Alfred Korzybski expressed it another way:

‘Say whatever you choose about the object, and whatever you might say is not it.’ Or, in other words: ‘Whatever you might say the object “is”, well, it is not.

For some purposes, ‘an apple is an apple is an apple.’ But are any two apples ever the ‘same,’ even one apple ten minutes later? No. A Winesap is not a Fuji. One Macintosh is different from the ‘same’ Macintosh a moment later, even if the change is unnoticeable to you or me. Time has changed it. My idea of the apple remains constant, however, as a matter of convenience. Then I can count my apples and have a dozen, or buy some from a farmer.

It is convenient to talk about numbers of people for certain purposes. “There are thirty children on the bus.” That is helpful to make sure we have all the children back on the bus when we return from the zoo. But those children aren’t really interchangeable, are they? We can’t just bring back thirty young people and expect parents to go along with that. They are pretty sure that the one they brought to school that day was pretty special and irreplaceable. We’re actually just talking about an ‘idea’ of children, not the beings themselves.

Josef Stalin said, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” Our minds cannot comprehend the pain of a million actual deaths, but if we replace those events with a number then we can compare that number with other numbers and ‘make sense’ of it all. We can forget for a moment that ‘A is never A.’

It’s just a million of something.