“Pay attention to the transitions, they leave you the most vulnerable.”
I was learning from my Tai Chi instructor on a cool fall morning in 2021. He was referring to the moments in the form when you transition from one move to the next, which is when we are most vulnerable to an attack, the most unstable, the most inclined to lose our balance.
“That’s why you move slow, and keep your stability, while staying aware of where your opponent is moving at all times.”
Keep your stability. Stay grounded. Don’t leave yourself vulnerable. Always know where your opponent is. I could not miss the fact that this was also describing my life as I was smack in the middle of my daughter’s two-plus-year treatment for leukemia.
“You move in a circular manner,” my instructor shares. “This constant change of direction means that you never encounter opposing force head-on. It also makes any force you apply to your opponent very difficult to resist because the moment the opponent resists in one direction, your force is moving in another. Circular motions also help clear blockages in the meridians, and make the body very healthy.”
I have walked in circles, invisible labyrinths, along the clinic floors, pacing while waiting on the oncology team to bring Penelope out of a spinal tap procedure far more times than I could count, minutes feeling like hours. Walking those circles would calm my mind just enough until finally I would see her bed being wheeled around the bend, with her still sweetly sound asleep from the medicine, her Rabbit tucked under her arm, thanks to the kindness and care of the anesthesiologist.
Along with circular motions, in Tai Chi, you always stay soft and loose, yet not limp. You want to maintain a dynamic balance of Yin and Yang forces. If you stiffen up – if you become too rigid, lock out your joints, get distracted – something will break. Instead, you have to keep a soft bend. You’re grounded, but you’re flexible.
Tai chi is not an aggressive martial art; it’s a defensive martial art. I like to think of it like this: it doesn’t start any trouble, but it knows exactly what to do when trouble shows up. I’ve found this to be a life rule when approaching emotions and tough situations.
And sometimes, to navigate your path, you need help. In certain situations, you need to be vulnerable. No one wants to talk about a child with cancer. We are a keep-it-moving culture. But every once in a while someone asks how you’re doing and you can feel that they truly want to know; they aren’t expecting you to keep it light, they aren’t interested in the fluff, they aren’t looking at you, eager for you to wrap it in a bow, or end it on a happy note, or change the subject. They simply look you in the eye and ask how you are, and then leave you a beautiful, wide open chasm of space to fall apart.
And it’s such a gift, these friends, this space. What a gift to give someone the space to fall apart, is it not? Because sometimes it’s exactly what we need to get to the other side of these emotions that are trapped. These people are the ones who set you free, who can help you to de-escalate the rating of your hurricane so that the storm can dissolve enough for you to care for everyone else. They help you lean into your pain, instead of resisting. These are the people who help you regain your stability.
In both life and martial arts, there comes a point where you just surrender to the tools you have and trust them, even if your brain is telling you they won’t work. You can’t silence that doubtful voice but you can turn toward it with the curiosity of a loving parent, or if you can’t do that, you can at least sidestep it, so that you can funnel your energy and faith into the tools. Your logical mind won’t trust them; it will be screaming at you to run, to pay attention to your panicked thoughts, but you must trust the tools to help you stay grounded and centered.
I’m quiet, but I feel everything. I always have. This is at a times a superpower, but if you don’t protect your emotions it can be a detriment to your own emotional well being because you wind up giving your precious energy away to anything that comes along.
And if you do that – if you let outside sources constantly zap your own internal energy – you eventually become depleted. Hello, burnout. As I learned in my studies, your energy is your “Qi” (pronounced “CHEE”), and you need to protect this energy as best you can. I also learned that, for much of my life, I had been “leaking Qi” everywhere.
The art of practicing both Tai Chi and Qigong teaches you to harness your body’s own internal energy, or life force, and in the case of Tai Chi, the energy of your opponent as well. Imagine that: instead of fighting, resisting, or running from, you move toward – and grow stronger. You keep your energy inside you, where it belongs, and you strengthen it. This, incidentally, allows you to then give it more easily in healthy ways.
Marriage is a martial art.
Friendship is a martial art.
Business is a martial art.
Raising kids is a martial art.
Crisis is, for sure, a martial art.
“Am I doing this right?” I was teaching a group of teenagers at an IOP program to help with anxiety and depression, and this one boy in particular wasn’t sure he had the form correct. “Let me see,” I said. I went through the flowing movements, but quickly, in fast-forward, so I could jog my own memory and compare. “Whoa!” he said, eyes wide. “It looks different moving fast – what does that move do?”
“That move,” I said, “is what wards off an opponent. Instead of fighting, and coming at them with resistance, you redirect them. You move along with them and harness their energy to your advantage. So you conserve your own energy, rather than depleting it, and use their energy to defeat them.”
None of this was lost on me: it was exactly what our family had been doing since Penelope’s diagnosis. Not once did we ask, “Why us?! Why?” Because that question in a situation like that is a waste of energy. Instead, it was: “What can we do to navigate this in a way that makes it as easeful as possible on everyone, especially Penelope?”
I’ve never been a believer that “everything happens for a reason.” What I do believe is that it’s what we do with what happens that counts; that’s where the real magic lies. We move as fluid as we can, quickly when necessary, but like water through most of it. We look for the lights: the support, the stability, the energy that will help us through the toughest moments.
And we pay attention to the transitions.
*If you’d like to support our family’s journey and efforts with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society to bring less toxic medicines and treatments for children with cancers of all kinds, and to learn more, please visit our family’s page.