When you are searching for a teacher you never know who you’re going to get. I had been meditating, a lot, and a friend suggested I try Tai Chi since it is a form of moving meditation. Forever looking for peace and internal quiet, I decided to give the class a try. I had cut off all of my hair, post divorce, was hiking, traveling, meditating, looking for something, anything. And so I showed up to class, broken, in search of putting myself back together again.
Looking back at the teachers who had the biggest impact on my life, I can see how they fundamentally altered what I thought about myself, about my life. How they yelled at me when necessary. To make me grow. Having grown up in a fraught home, with a sick father, many of these teachers were surrogate father figures for me. I didn’t know it was okay for a teacher to get angry with me and that that was okay. I didn’t know anyone could be angry in a safe way. But anger burns away the unnecessary and spurns behavior to make changes. In my search for truth, I had to learn that the hardest part of growth is looking at myself. First I searched for truth in music, then physics. In meditation, and knitting. Martial arts. In anger. In acceptance.
I showed up to tai chi at 7am that first Saturday, I was kind of a sad sack and a jumbled mess. My tai chi teacher showed me the Qi Gong style warm up, as he did to every student no matter their ability, without fail. He slowly, patiently moved his hands around, and I watched, there was magic in his hands, it was meditative. Calming. We worked at the warm up exercises together that cold March morning, sweat dripping down my brow. “Are you okay,” he asked? “I am fine,” I said. I didn’t know that standing still could be as difficult as moving fast. But born stubborn and passionate, I stuck with it. I stuck through sweating until I thought I might pass out. Knee pain. Tendon pain that felt like being stung by 10,000 angry bees. Back pain. Pain in my arm so bad I couldn’t close my hand around a coffee mug. Maybe it was the first sense of freedom and peace and accomplishment that I got from tai chi, I don’t really know what propelled me forward from my sad state. He taught with wisdom. When he taught us the first water form, it got my stagnant water moving again. It was elemental. It was powerful. It was slow. It was difficult.
You can’t pick your parents, but you can pick your teachers. Teachers, much like parents are there to serve a purpose to teach you how to live in the world. Even when they are done teaching, you will still learn even if they are no longer there to teach you. I learned in tai chi to believe in what I’ve been searching for. Truth. Myself. Life. Purpose. Alan Watts said the universe created us so it could look at itself. There are so many types of people. So many changes that happen in nature. How could anyone ever get bored looking at the Universe? Concurrently I worked on acceptance of impermanence. Non attachment. Patience. Quiet. But I’m still as stubborn and passionate and loud as ever. Maybe it’s 10% easier to accept now. I can’t quite tell.
When I was really struggling with my non quiet meditative mind I asked another talented teacher in my tai chi class about how to quiet the mind. She said what our head instructor said was to imagine the green of nature or the face of a loved one when the mind is not quiet. No two more beautiful things than that. Maybe my mind and heart won’t be quiet but I can look at the things I love when it’s happening.
My tai chi teacher pushed me to grow. He actually literally pushed me. When I asked what a movement was for he hit me in the face to demonstrate. And I stood there a second time and let him do it again. I won’t forget the purpose of that strike just as I’ll never forget his lesson. He yelled at me in class for not watching once. Oh the embarrassment. I was standing with my back turned, trying to mimic what his was showing. And as usual, with grace he made everything seem so much easier and clearer than it actually was. When he yelled my name I crumbled inside and hung my head, displeased to have evoked the ire of teacher.
The past few months, when he knew he was dying, but the class didn’t know, he told me a few things he wanted me to work on. To go lower in a pose. Once he came up behind me silently in class to fix my arm. He told me to practice tai chi twice a day. I remember looking at him one cold morning, with no idea of his fate, and him looking back, and how I smiled because I was happy. And he smiled back.
Sometimes although you are not ready for your teacher to go, it is his time anyway. Life has already decided for him. When I think of his courage and acceptance and how he kept going to teach us all, to call out the movements, I am in awe. His greatest wish was that we continue the class without him, even as cancer ravaged his body. He spent his final time with his family.
Sometimes a teacher pushes you and yells at you because you need to learn. But no teacher is forever. Even though I didn’t want him to go, it was his time. In the first few days after his death I was in shock, sort of stumbling around the idea of it, and I saw a video clip of a short teaching session he had given one Sunday. I saw again, his brilliance, I got to hear his voice issuing the commands, to see him perform the movements. I felt a moment of peace. He is never truly gone. Maybe he has moved to another room, but we can still learn from him, even though his voice as we know it is gone. I’ve never been so sad to think of someone not yelling at me again. I remember his taciturn style, serious, focused. I remember the few times his keen sense of humor broke through, how he liked to laugh. He was a perfect mimic. You could tell who he was copying when he was pointing out technique. He was a hell of a guy.
None of us in class were ready for his loss. He was our father. Our teacher. Our friend. I sat in his buddhist funeral, surrounded by the smell of incense and flowers. Tears streamed down my face, although I couldn’t understand what was being said, I could see the pain and heartbreak when his family spoke, their bodies encircled in white. I watched the photos stream by on the slide show, of him doing what he loved, with his family, laughing, riding motorbikes. Hugging children. Teaching new students. I looked at the alter in front of his coffin, with flowers and food. I stood in line to give incense to his family and bow, three times, just like at the temple. I met his beautiful wife, and give her my condolences. Some wounds time never heals, like the loss of a good teacher, or a loved one. But somehow you can still search for peace, for truth. And if you find the strength to look in yourself, you may see something you didn’t know existed, that you can believe in yourself.
I will look for him in the trees. In the faces of loved ones. We all cross to that other room, one day. At forty the list of those who have moved to the other room grows longer and longer. But I know in my passionate, stubborn heart, if I look deeply in myself, I can see those that I’ve loved and lost. My teachers, who left before I was ready, although it was time for me to stand on my own.