Where Softness Begins – Justin Stone and T’ai Chi Chih

Where Softness Begins
Justin Stone and T’ai Chi Chih
Matthew van der Giessen

I had positioned myself toward the end of a long row of workshop participants when Justin Stone walked into the room and sat himself down right in front of me. My placement of safe anonymity evaporated immediately. Justin sat there, looking at nothing and everything, while we moved through our set.

I had arrived in Albuquerque earlier that week with teachers and students from across the continent who had gathered to celebrate Justin’s 94th birthday, and to take my first Intensive workshop.

When we finished, Pam Towne, who was leading the Intensive, asked Justin for his comments. The many useful things I’m sure he said disappeared in a blur for me when, at one point, he turned to me and said, “I don’t know what you think you are doing, but that’s not Tai Chi Chih.” I had been warned by Gail Terriff, my teacher in Edmonton, that when I went to the Intensive I would receive at least one correction that would collapse my sense that I knew how to practice Tai Chi Chih.  Little did I know that it would come as such a sweeping critique of my practice and from Justin Stone himself! I continued to absorb the impact of Justin’s statement as Pam led us into the next section of teaching.

Then, a window opened awakening me from my absorbed self reflection. Justin had become a bit antsy as he waited for Carmen Brocklehurst to take him home;  he was hosting a meditation later that afternoon. Finally, he got up and headed for the door. I waited for somebody to do something but it seemed as if in that moment time stopped and nobody moved. I felt myself step forward and open the door for Justin.

As I walked him out to the car, he turned to me with the second set of words he would ever speak to me. “Your technique is just fine”, he said to me. “You just have to learn to relax.” It was if, having fallen into a pit as the ground opened up under my feet when he had spoken to me earlier, he had now handed me a ladder by which I might be able to find my way out.

Later that week, amongst the many invaluable things I learned, Pam handed me an essential rung for my ladder. It was the basic principles of Tai Chi Chih practice: moving from the center with softness and continuity, yining and yanging with the focus on the soles of my feet, with polarity and circularity. Somehow, I thought I could never memorize this simple line. Yet, I immediately recognized that this was the missing piece that I needed to respond to Justin’s challenge to me. Every evening after our class I went home and practiced it in my hotel room. Eventually it stuck.

In my work as a massage therapist, I am interacting with people through my body every day.  After 30 years I have learned that congruent interaction is an essential part of my practice. Upon taking my new Tai Chi Chih mantra home, I discovered that holding it quietly inside myself subtly but powerfully changed the quality of my work. New options opened up with deep and unexpected shifts for my clients. In the years since my meeting with Justin, my work has gone through what is perhaps the most significant evolution of my whole career.

And perhaps as important, I find that in my every day interactions with others, whether individually or in groups, my internal mantra helps keep me grounded, helps me hear how I need to be in this moment. I feel more comfortable in myself and, perhaps, more helpful to the fellow beings who inhabit my particular universe. While Justin may no longer be with us in person, his words are there in my ear to help guide me through the rest of my life, moving from the center with softness and continuity.

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