Last night my tai chi teacher made one of those cryptic remarks that should be reserved for mysterious elders who hang out on the top of inaccessible mountains and certainly don’t speak English. He said, “You follow the form until there is no form.”
He was describing how you progress as a student in tai chi—a much more serious student than I will ever be—from a prescribed set of movements to following your sparring partner’s energy wherever it leads. Though sparring with God may be ill advised, it struck me that this is a good metaphor for spiritual practice as well, or life in general.
We start life off with many sets of rules—at home, at school, in society in general. As kids, we need these guidelines to help us learn how to live together. Sometimes, though, we get too attached to them, especially the unwritten societal teachings about what indicates success. The problem is, at some point, following the rules ceases to satisfy. We start looking for something beyond the form, but we may not be ready to step outside the lines quite yet.
Though living by the rules ensures failure—we’re all going to give in to the temptation to eat bacon on the Sabbath some day—rules have an enviable certainty. I know the order of the movements in tai chi, and if I stick to that order, I’ve done it right.
Unfortunately, getting the moves right isn’t the point, but we can’t know that until we’ve learned the form so well it’s part of us. We can’t know there’s something more than the rules until we’ve followed them for a while.
It’s difficult to know when to leave the form behind. An English professor once told me that poets need to learn to write poems that follow prescribed rhyme and meter so that they know how to break the rules in a way that creates something new and different. But how do we know when the moment comes to make that break?
In Chinese, the verb for doing tai chi is dă, which in this context means “play.” When our footing is sure enough, when we’ve internalized the form to the extent that we can sense the intent behind it, then we can move beyond the form. When we’ve entered into life deeply enough that nothing but joy will do, when we don’t mind losing because we know it’s all part of a bigger game, then we can begin to play.