Methods are Overrated

As my readers may know, I spent 9 years living as an urban hermit while I was studying Religious Daoism with Liu Ming. The practice itself included a large number of different methods. Just on the surface, I constructed an elevated quiet room dedicated to solo meditation and tea ceremony which was painted with faux gold leaf, it had sliding shoji doors and fitted tatami mats. Some of the methods included a great deal of reading and reciting, following a complex calendar, building and rebuilding a community center several times using fengshui, diagnostic cooking with Chinese herbs and other diet-regulatory practices, ritual bathing for purification; not to mention my daily qigong, daoyin, gongfu, neijia, practices as well as music, teaching, and an unbelievable amount of free time.

But honestly methods, as cool as they are, have very little to do with the subject as I see it. The subject is exploring and embodying a particular view of what a human being is, and reflecting on and refining that view through the experience, context, and cyclic quality of living. If I had to pin it down I would call it self-respect. But I don’t have to pin it down, I’m in it.

I’m offering this reflection here because I keep running into what we might call the supremacy of methods. I see this a lot among martial artists, especially Tai Chi people, who are too often disconnected from the view which inspired the practice. A key tell for this disconnected view is an insistence that there are two reasonable goals of Tai Chi, combat skills and health. Delusion + Time = Dissatisfaction. When people get deeply committed to dissatisfaction, they become demons, aggressive and insular. "My method is better than your method." I don’t mean to exaggerate the case here, there are many, many, ways out of this trap. But it is a trap. 

That is one of the reasons I wrote Possible Origins. I wanted to connect with people, who are sincerely engaged in Chinese martial arts, about the types of fruition they are experiencing and how that reflects on their view of what is worth doing. 

Feedback from readers of Possible Origins has been almost entirely positive. In fact, I’ve only received two critiques, both from people who liked the book. 

The first was academic, with all that great material contextualized to situate the martial arts inside of religion and theater, why did I feel a need to preach at the end! Why did I insert myself in the conversation as an advocate?

The second was, what is the value of knowing history and culture? Your arguments are interesting and very convincing. But why does it matter? 

Both of these critiques are based on the reasonable assumption that the subject is a method—a technique, a protocol, a series of investments. That is how modern people East and West tend to see the subject. In this loop, jiao (teachings), and jia (lineage), are both simply the means for transmitting a method. But if that were true, why would their be two? I mean what is the difference? In fact the subject is a conversation with history and culture, no matter where or when it happens. 

The “subject" is how do you spontaneously create or invent a method which reveals and unfolds what it is to express full human potentiality. Tai Chi isn’t just something you can train diligently day after day and expect to get that kind of result, deep though it may be. You have to reinvent it, test it, tease it, rejigger it, discover it, break it, share it, eat it, sing it, turn it into a puppet show, and build something out of it. I’m an advocate because it is not a method, it is a spontaneous and dynamic relationship to creativity, culture, religion, and history. 

The shoji screen door to my quiet room, 1997.

The shoji screen door to my quiet room, 1997.