Excerpted with permission from "The Art of Learning" (Free Press).
The subject of the book and movie, "Searching for Bobby Fischer," Josh Waitzkin played chess from the age of six, winning many championships. But the stress of competition and living "in a cerebral bubble" took their toll. In his new book, Josh describes the practice that finally helped him relax.
I think what initially struck me that fall evening, when I watched my first Tai Chi class, was that the goal was not winning, but, simply, being. Each of the twelve people on the dojo floor seemed to be listening to some quiet, internal muse. The group moved together, slowly gliding through what looked like an earthy dance. The teacher, William C. C. Chen, flowed in front of the students, leading the meditation. He was sixty-four years old but in the moment he could have passed for anywhere between forty and eighty, one of those ageless beings who puts out the energy of an ancient gorilla. He moved dreamily, as if he were in a thick cloud. Watching Chen, I had the impression that every fiber of his body was pulsing with some strange electrical connection. His hand pushed through empty space like it was feeling and drawing from the subtlest ripples in the air; profound, precise, nothing extra. His grace was simplicity itself. I sat entranced. I had to learn more.
The next day I went back to the school to take my first class. I remember that as I stepped onto the floor, my skin prickled with excitement. Everyone was warming up, swaying around with their fists slapping into their lower backs in what I would later learn was a Qigong exercise. I tried to follow but my shoulders felt tight. Then Chen walked onto the floor and the room was silent. He smiled gently as he found his place in front of the class. Then he slowly closed his eyes while exhaling deeply, his mind moving inward, everything settling into stillness, his whole body becoming molten and live. I was rapt. From the stillness, his palms floated up, the simplest movement was profound from this man, and he began to lead us through the opening postures of the Tai Chi form. I followed along as best I could. All the profundity I was struck by in Chen's form combined with a sense of total befuddlement. His grace was a world away. I felt stiff and awkward.
After ten minutes Chen broke the class into groups, and I was put with a senior student who patiently described the basic principles of Tai Chi's body mechanics. As we repeated the first few movements over and over, I was told to release my hip joints, breathe into the lower abdomen, relax my shoulders and back. Relax, relax, relax. I never knew I was so tense! After years of hunching over a chessboard, my posture needed serious attention. The man explained that my head should float as though it were suspended by a string from the crown point. This felt good.
Over the next few months, I learned the sixty basic movements of the meditative form. I was a beginner, a child learning to crawl, and the world began to lift off my shoulders. Chess was irrelevant on these wooden floors. There were no television cameras, no fans, no suffocating pressure. I practiced for hours every evening. Slowly bur surely, the alien language began to feel natural, a part of me. My previous attempts at meditation had been tumultuous -- a ball of nerves chilling itself out. Now it was as if my insides were being massaged while my mind floated happily through space. As I consciously released the tension from one part of my body at a time, I experienced a surprising sense of physical awareness. A subtle buzzing tickled my fingers. I played with that feeling, and realized that when deeply relaxed, I could focus on any part of my body and become aware of a rich well of sensation that had previously gone unnoticed. This was interesting.
From my first days at the school, my interactions with William Chen were stirring. His teaching style was understated, his body a well of information. He seemed to exist on another wavelength, wrapped into a sublime reality that he shared through osmosis. He spoke softly, moved deeply, taught those who were ready to learn. Gems were afterthoughts, hidden beneath the breath, and you could pick them up or not -- he hardly seemed to care. I was amazed how much of his subtle instruction went unnoticed.
Whether or not imperfect breath patterns or just plain stress was my problem, my quality of life was greatly improved during my first few months of Tai Chi practice. It remarkable how developing the ability to be physically introspective changed my world. Aches and pains dissolved with small postural tweaks. If I was stressed out, I did Tai Chi and was calmed. Suddenly I had an internal mechanism with which to deal with external pressures.
On a deeper level, the practice had the effect of connecting disparate elements of my being. My whole life I had been an athletic guy who practiced a sport of the mind. As a boy I had been devoted to my love for chess, and my passion was so unfettered that body and soul were united in the task. Later, as I became alienated from chess, my physical instincts were working in opposition to my mental training. I felt trapped in a cerebral bubble, like a tiger in a cage. Now I was learning how to systematically put those elements of my being back together. In early 1999, Master Chen invited me to begin Push Hands practice. I had no idea that his quiet offer would change my life.