The Happiness of the Fish by Chiang Yee
While emptying an attic closet yesterday—the same one where we found our dead cat Iris back in March—I discovered another box of books on Chinese philosophy, culture, and art that my husband acquired over the years. He has drifted away from the study, but I now find such stuff mesmerizing! It helps explain the pull, influence, and joy I’ve discovered in T’ai chi and good health.
Now that there are only 26 more days until we leave, life seems very peaceful. You may think we are working round the clock to get ready. Wrong! We do whatever we want.
My morning routine is sacred, of course, then I spend a few hours packing, then a few hours sewing, an hour with Honey Girl in our evening walk, a couple hours watching a favorite series (right now it’s Babylon Berlin, after we watched all of the wonderful How to Get Away with Murder). Later at night, I enjoy reading the poetry of Yuan Chi, philosophy by Gaston Bachelard and Joseph Campbell, Gish Jen’s Girl at the Baggage Claim, and Subhadramati’s Not About Being Good, among other books. Piles of books line the rooms. That does not bother us a bit. They’re like friends, ready to offer an encouraging thought or insight, as we navigate this time of change.
Late at night, sometimes I just sit in the sunroom with a window ajar, listening to the night and gazing upon the tree-fringed dark sky. Terribly inefficient! Or terribly wise?
Yesterday was June first! So exciting to turn the page on our last month before the move! Yet instead of launching into a frenzy of work or anxiety about moving, I spent hours poring over Chinese Calligraphy by Chiang Yee (1938) and Change by Hellmut Wilhelm (1960). I love how Chinese philosophy makes no sense, at first, until it does…
Try this mental exercise. First consider the concepts of liveliness, constancy and change, in the quotes below (and the gorgeous image above). Then read the description of how energy manifests itself in T’ai chi practice at the bottom. If you are able to resist the urge to do T’ai chi after all that, I’d be surprised! Is not T’ai chi an incredible gift to humankind?
In Chinese calligraphy, says Mr. Chiang, the main principle of composition is in every case a balance and poise similar to that of a figure standing, walking, dancing, or executing some other lively movement. [Lively movement as seen in The Happiness of the Fish, above, Plate XXI of Chinese Calligraphy.]
‘The beauty of Chinese calligraphy is essentially the beauty of plastic movement, not of designed and motionless shape.’
How such ‘lively movement’ is conveyed by a written character, or by a painting or a piece of sculpture or pottery, is a mystery that we cannot analyse—it is an instinctive coordination of the artist’s mental image and the muscular stroke with which he ‘expresses’ or ‘projects’ that image. It is, at any rate, a very personal faculty, achieved by continuous practice and meditation, by a discipline that is spiritual rather than physical.
-“Foreword” by Sir Herbert Read, in Chiang Yee, Chinese Calligraphy, viii.
On Constancy and Change
Change: that is the unchangeable.
The opposite of change is regression, not cessation of movement. Change, then, is not simply movement as such, for its opposite is also movement. Change is natural movement rather, development that can only reverse itself by going against nature.
To recognize that man moves and acts, that he grows and develops, this is not deep insight, but to know that this movement and development … are governed by the law of change, from which there is no escape, this has fostered in early Chinese philosophy its gratifying integrity and lucidity.
Change is at work in the great as well as in the small … it can be read in cosmic happenings as well as in the hearts of men. The individual who is conscious of responsibility is on a par with the cosmic forces of heaven and earth.
Since every seed attains development in change, it must also be possible to introduce into its flow a seed planted by man. And since knowledge of the laws of change teaches the right way of planting such a seed, a highly effective influence becomes possible. … the closer to the time of planting, the stronger the influence. To recognize the moment of its germination is to become the master of the fate of the seed.
The Creative knows through the easy.
The Receptive can do things through the simple.
The stability of change is the counterpart of the human virtue of reliability. One can grasp it, hold on to it, count upon it.
To become aware of what is constant in the flux of nature and life is the first step in abstract thinking. … Similarly the conception of constancy in change provides the first guarantee of meaningful action.
-Hellmut Wilhelm, Change, 17-23.
On T’ai chi, our daily way to feel calm in the face of death and change
Internal energy is much more powerful than muscle power. Muscle tension impedes the flow of internal energy. While a certain minimum of tension must be used in movement and in holding up the body, any further tension interferes with the greater power of chi.
When faced with a conflict, you know not to meet it head on. Never interfere with your partner’s momentum (whether physical or emotional); let it flow by you or rechannel it. The world you perceive is a reflection of your inner state.
The T’ai chi student begins to understand the role of cycles in nature. The biological feelings of your connection to the environment become stronger than your feeling of isolation. … By identifying with biological life, you become immortal. … Death is no longer a threat; its force has been neutralized. As part of life, you will never die—only change.
-Bob Klein, Movements of Magic, 53-56.