Whenever we see a t’ai chi master gracefully demonstrate a form, or an exquisite dancer glide through a routine, or a point guard in the zone passing to the only spot on the floor where something COULD materialize, we might be tempted to see only the effortlessness they display and forget all the effort it takes to become so “effortless”. I have often heard students argue that true skill can only be developed by relaxing and going with the flow. That’s what the masters do, right? Isn’t that the whole point of the Tao Te Ching?

Ah, if it were that easy I’d just lie down on the hammock and wake from my nap with all the skills I would ever need.

The sage may have no preferences, but he won’t become a sage by having no preferences. Choices are made in each moment, consciously or unconsciously.

In John Beaulieu’s excellent new book, Human Tuning (I mentioned it on an earlier blog), he likens mastery to hang gliding. It appears that the person hang gliding is effortlessly soaring through the air in blissful relaxation, but is actually making adjustments moment by moment. This requires focused awareness and a high degree of familiarity with the conditions you’ll meet hundreds of feet up in a non-motorized aircraft. The stakes are pretty high.

I have never hang glided, but the same idea is at play in windsurfing (sailboarding). I have only done it a few times (never very well), but was really impressed with the skill required just to keep moving. You have to be responsive to the constant changes in your relationship to the water supporting the sailboard supporting your feet supporting the rest of your body. Each wave changes the pitch of the floor you are standing on and you might be making dozens of small adjustments each second—faster than you can consciously think. At the same time, you have to feel the direction of the wind and adjust the angle of the sail to meet it in a way that propels you forward.

You hold the sail via a crossbar and the mast swivels on a ball joint at the base. So you can move the sail in pretty much any direction to meet the wind. It will also fall over unless you hold it up. The trick is to line the sail up correctly so that it supports itself by the dynamic tension against the wind. If the wind is strong enough you can lean way back and hang from the bar.

If you put this all together with a high degree of skill, you can look pretty cool out there skimming over the water. It may look effortless. What you don’t see are all the minute adjustments that make it look so easy. A miss is a mile, however. Too much or too little and you end up in the drink. Then you have to climb up on the surfboard and haul the sail up out of the water and start over. (I did a LOT of that!)

My friend Patrick once gave an impromptu display of windsurfing mastery at Lake Elsinore, southeast of Los Angeles. The lake was really crowded with hundreds of sailing vessels of all sizes and I was taking a break from the aforementioned exercise of falling in the water and dragging up a water-laden sail. Suddenly a huge Santa Ana came out of nowhere and capsized all the catamarans and sunfish in its path. On shore towels and beach umbrellas were flying. When I looked out on the lake there was one lone sail still proudly erect. Patrick weaved his way through fallen boats at a zillion knots leaning waaaay back to counterbalance against that huge blow. He knew how to find the “sweet spot” that eluded me and just about everyone else there.

In t’ai chi ch’uan we are looking for that sweet spot too. Most of us maneuver our way through life offsetting one tension against another, largely oblivious to the minute adjustments we must make constantly to keep from falling on our faces. We have long ago programmed most of that work to be done at a level well below our conscious minds. We take most of it for granted and are loath to change anything without a real good reason. It takes a lot of work to re-tool something as fundamental as standing and walking.

That’s where the gongfu of t’ai chi comes in. Daily practice allows us to make the shift gradually. We learn something new and practice it. Old energy patterns then reassert themselves and pull us back into old habits. We correct that to come closer to the ideal, and then go through the cycle again. Two steps forward, one back. Over and over. Gradually we learn to release extraneous muscular tension and relax into the intrinsic support of our body/mind. We replace the unconscious holding patterns that control us with a new template that we can engage in real time. Through our gongfu we learn to process countless variables instantly.

It is there that we find the sweet spot. When we un-kink the hose then the energy can flow freely. That’s when the cool stuff happens.

Just like windsurfing.