Tai Chi after Fifty

Several months after my forty-fourth birthday, I purchased a battered and abused 1982 Yamaha XJ Five-fifty Maxim. While I had owned an enjoyed a long list of cars and trucks. The Maxim was my first, and so far my only, motorcycle. In part, I acquired the Maxim to fulfill a long-deferred curiosity and ambition. That being, of course, to experience riding a motorcycle.

The bike’s teardrop-shaped fuel tank and side covers were black with purple flames stretching toward the back of the bike. The flames didn’t seem to take themselves too seriously. I mean really, purple? At some point in the decades before I’d owned it, someone had also removed the original curvy chrome handle-bars that the bike was sold with to a straight, black motorcross-style bar. I could hardly know what a good idea that had been when I bought the bike, but that handlebar set-up gave the bike its own personality. The original dual chrome exhaust pipes had also been replaced by a matte black four-into-one design. At the motorcycle garage where I bought the bike, the exhaust note was entertaining. Revved to a few thousand r.p.m’s inside a cinder-block garage, the four-cylinder sounded racy and inviting. The gauges and instruments didn’t seem to be original to the bike either. Here was a motorcycle that was clearly past prime condition and into a second or third shot at life.

At the same little bike garage where I found the bike I bought, I also briefly surveyed a similar-vintage Maxim seven-fifty with a yellow paint job. I could probably have purchased either bike without regret and, to be honest, the larger motorcycle appealed to my egotistical side. But something about the five-fifty attracted me. Sitting on the bike felt comfortable and right. The thirty year-old patina. The purple flames that didn’t take themselves too seriously. The genuine exhaust note. Dropping eight hundred dollars in the middle of February in 2014 meant that the smaller four-cylinder motorcycle, and all of the possibilities it presented, was mine. I wouldn’t be able to ride it for several months, but I was excited and satisfied to obtain what seemed to be an apt avatar and metaphor of my self.

More recently, as my fiftieth birthday came and went, I approached another long-deferred curiosity and ambition: beginning to learn the martial art called Tai Chi. It might be forgiven if someone were to argue that learning Tai Chi seems rather less exhilarating and significantly less dangerous than learning to ride a motorcycle. After all, isn’t one of the archetypal images of Tai Chi that of grey-haired elders moving slowly, and probably in unison, in a park-like setting? But I had – and continue to have – expectations that learning Tai Chi will be every bit as enriching as learning to ride a motorcycle.

Aesthetically, learning to ride a motorcycle and learning Tai Chi may seem to be opposing activities which would appeal to very different types of people. Riding a motorcycle can be brazenly loud and smelly, not to mention physically demanding. Riding a motorcycle carries the ever-present threat of injury or death. Riding a motorcycle is potentially the fastest and riskiest iteration of yourself in motion that you can experience. Stop paying attention at the wrong moment and you could face the worst (or even the last) day of your life.

Meanwhile Tai Chi seems to be the epitome of the quiet, the calm and the physically un-intimidating. The greatest danger of the person engaged in Tai Chi seems to be that of peacefulness and serenity. But there is a dark side. Tai Chi is potentially the slowest and most connected iteration of yourself in motion that you can experience. Stop paying attention at the wrong moment and you could face your own lack of physical coordination, balance and self-understanding.

For me, these two very different activities appeal to a similar need in the same person. That is the need to be a genuine learner or novice with something. Despite external and overt aesthetic differences, the two activities have some very considerable similarities when it comes to learning and re-setting a person’s understanding of themselves.

When I decided that I would finally learn to ride a motorcycle, I was already firmly established in middle age. While the objective to ride had been a something I’d carried all the way back to my early-twenties, finally doing it was not some a stereo-typical mid-life crisis grab at youth. Nor did it seem like some kind of fantasy life-style wish-fulfillment. I had no interest in becoming a wild-life biker, speed-track rider or whatever may come to mind when some middle-aged man buys a new toy. In fact, the idea of riding a motorcycle had always been both attractive and intimidating for me. It had mostly seemed like something that other people did but that I probably wouldn’t. It was the kind of thing that would inspire the thought “Wouldn’t it be great to experience riding a motorcycle”. But that thought was usually followed by ” But that isn’t the kind of thing I’ll really actually do”.

At that time, my family and I were having a tough year. Several things had happened that seemed to be out of our control. Health issues. Career issues. Things that I had taken for granted or that I felt that I had achieved – or were still achievable, had rather suddenly become uncertain. The details of those times are almost wholly irrelevant. Most of us experience a version of this at some point in our lives. Life knocks us down a bit.

Suddenly I was in shadows of fear, self-doubt and uncertainty. For me it was a time when when my confidence in myself and in the fundamental rightness of the world had been seriously dinged-up. There were parts of me that were emptied out as they hadn’t been in decades. I didn’t consciously know it at the time, but I needed to take something on that would help me re-build my integrated self from the ground up.

Perhaps by force of an instinct that I wasn’t aware of, I did it. I tackled something that was almost wholly outside of my character and skill-set. I put myself in the position of a beginner and a learner. I can’t emphasize enough how important this point is. In Zen philosophy, there is a well-known expectation that a person should maintain a “beginner’s mind”. In Zen, there is the word “shoshin” which has this sense that a beginner approaches something without pre-conceptions. Shoshin indicates that the experience, the thing that the person has begun, is fresh, new and not already known. A person who is a beginner is a whole learner. Relative to the thing that is to be learned, the beginner has no status and no standing. Everything is still un-acquired.

But so much of the life, career and society I grew-up with and into had negated the value of a beginner’s mind. Building a career, a family, a home and a sense of self seems to be the opposite of maintaining a beginner mindset. Building a career or a sense of self is exactly that – building. It’s an additive process. Experience upon experience. Year upon year. Becoming a specialist or an expert is a process of amassing knowledge, skills, competence over time. You don’t “get ahead” in a career by being a beginner. Being ahead is no longer being a beginner. On the corporate ladder, beginners are at the first rung, not at the top. Having a home with lots of traditions and memories means adding year-over-year to what came before. I had spent decades becoming the person I was.

I wasn’t un-happy with myself. But I really didn’t know how to continue building in the face of the experiences and difficulties I had recently had. Motorcycling came along as an opportunity to value being a ground-up beginner.

With motorcycling, I started with a two-hour long try-it-out course at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario. It was the kind of course for people who’ve never been on, or probably near, a motorcycle. People who’d ridden a dirt-bike as a kid, or maybe had a motorbike earlier in life didn’t take this kind of course. This was for genuine, full-on beginners. On the day that I took the course, there were about a dozen students of various ages, but we were all equal in our skill. None. We all needed to show up with a helmet, gloves and other basic gear to allow basic, safety-oriented exposure to motorbikes. We learned where the various controls on the bike were and how they functioned. We learned how to operate the clutch and how to operate the gear selector. We learned about the brakes and where we should be looking while riding. And we started to learn how to put all of these things together while riding. By the end of two hours, the instructors let us putt around in first-gear on the college’s Honda Titan 150 bikes. Riding at less than ten kilometers per hour was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my adult life.

And it was enough to lead to buying that five-fifty Maxim and to signing up for the weekend-long learner course that was designed to help make beginners like me legal and nearly competent for the road. I am not a risk-taking thrill-seeker at heart and was very confident that there was no point in jumping on any motorcycle without expert guidance to help keep my middle-aged skin and bones intact. By the end of the second training course – a weekend-long session – I had done something that I hadn’t done since I was a kid – I learned the basics of a new physical skill.

But I had done another thing that was probably more important to me. I had re-set my ability to be a full and true beginner. As I said earlier, I sold the motorcycle after a couple of years. I’d ridden around my county frequently enough to feel confident on the bike but without ever feeling like an expert. I was able to ride. I could look at a motorcycle and say, “wouldn’t it be nice to experience riding a motorbike” and the second thought was “I know what that’s like” rather than “but that’s not something I’d every actually do.” Because being a beginner can be exhilarating but the best thing about being a beginner is that it lets you build yourself from the ground-up.

The process of building a part of myself from the ground-up helped me to be willing and able to build other parts of myself from the ground-up. It enabled me to end one career and build a new one from the ground-up. It isn’t easy to set aside a couple of decades of progress up one career ladder to start-over down at the bottom rung. I found that I wanted all that climbing on that other ladder to matter on the one I was currently on. But that other climbing didn’t really matter all that much.

Being a beginner on a motorcycle acted as a kind of inoculation to the shock of shifting from being an experienced professional on one career ladder to a newbie on another.

Learning to ride was an exciting, dangerous and extremely enriching personal experience. After a couple of seasons exploring Elgin County’s farm-and-Carolinian-forest-lined roads, I sold the bike. At the time, I had other priorities and felt that my curiosity had been satisfied and the ambition fulfilled. That turns out to be not wholly true – but I may come back to that another time.

More recently, the whole world has undergone dramatic and unprecedented changes that has made almost every aspect of our lives uncertain and overshadowed with fears. For many people, myself included, the pandemic brought changes to the pace and presentation of our daily lives. Before the pandemic came, I was working in a large corporate centre alongside hundreds of others. I went about my day-to-day business as a fifty-plus year old member of my community in my own way. I shopped for groceries or other goods and services at shops when and how I preferred to. I obtained medical services when needed – and, unfortunately, this was with increasing frequency. Most things were reasonably convenient. In March of 2020, the reliable and predictable parts of our lives suddenly weren’t.

Health issues. Career Issues. We all had to wear masks and curtail our usual habits of daily living. Living arrangements that had been working just fine suddenly needed to change. Many people lost their jobs, temporarily or permanently. I was extremely fortunate that the pandemic resulted in being newly-established as a home-based worker doing the same work I had already been doing. But none of that meant that the world and daily-life wasn’t suddenly very different, very stressful and requiring some different approaches to life. I still needed to do my best to be healthy and happily content in my daily life.

So I decided to tackle another long-standing ambition. I decided to begin learning Tai Chi.

Deciding to learn Tai Chi during the social distancing climate of 2020 meant that the only viable sources of expert guidance were to be found via the internet. And there’s no shortage of potential experts to choose from. Frankly, I was quite pleased to learn in the seclusion of my own home. Compared to the possibility of

dropping a motorcycle or launching myself into some unforgiving obstacle amid a group of peers, waving my limbs around with a group of strangers was more intimidating and entailed a greater sense of self-consciousness. At least with the motorcycle gear, a degree of anonymity is assured via the giant helmet strapped to my head.

Which brings up the matter of “gear”. With a motorcycle, the requisite gear includes protective equipment from head to toe. Riding without the gear is dumb. The idea is to reduce one’s vulnerability during an inherently vulnerable activity. With Tai Chi, I seem to get away with loose, light clothing, a pair of baggy sweat pants and a t-shirt for example, and a pair of moccasins or socks. My tai chi gear isn’t designed to provide protection in the event of an eighty kilometer per hour crash. It is designed to allow movement and flexibility. My motorcycle gear hid and protected my frail forty plus year old body. My tai chi gear uncovers and connects me with my my even more frail fifty year old bod.

Thanks to the generosity of Youtube’s community of content providers and potential Tai Chi experts I was able to find a few teachers who were offering free, reasonably detailed and easy to follow instructions on how to get started with the one hundred and eight movements contained within the martial art known as Tai Chi.

One hundred and eight movements!

While it seems to be an established perception that the physics of motorcycling is a complex and imperfectly understood thing, I’m not certain if anyone has taken the trouble to catalog the number of critical motions and combinations of motions that are required for riding. A dozen? Two dozen? Whatever the exact number may be – it surely pales compared to Tai Chi.

After a little more than a year of practicing Tai Chi, I am still an utter beginner. I rely on about a dozen movements that I enjoy. I no longer feel a hurky-jerky impulse to correct myself or remind myself how to move. I still move far more quickly than I think that I should and I don’t quite feel that I’m able to extend my range of motion much over what I did twelve or fifteen months earlier. But I feel that I have taken control over my own process of learning.

Whether riding a motorcycle or learning to waggle my limbs in something that approaches a synchronized and intentional way, I am learning a new physical ability. Let’s not call it a skill yet. With the motorcycle, I was tremendously satisfied with the confidence and courage that I acquired as I learned. Learning something new, something with risk, is a terrific way to relearn who you are physically, intellectually and emotionally. With Tai Chi, I am experiencing the same learning and self-connection.

There is a maxim that is recited in any number of training environments that goes something like… “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”. While learning these activities, the good sense of the phrase emerges in different ways. With the bike, taking time to learn how to operate the clutch; how to smoothly change gears, how to be in control and attentive without being over-stimulated is a better done at slow speeds…and over time. With Tai Chi, learning to move slowly, how to be in control of my breathing and movements without over-stimulating is just as challenging.

I don’t regret deferring the experience of riding a motorcycle until I was in my mid-forties. I’d long out-grown any dangerously immature cravings for speed that I may have had as a younger person. And I now know that I needed the opportunity to step out of a state of mind that didn’t leave room for me to be an eager and joyful beginner. In a way, deferring the pleasure of riding until my forties and the pleasure of learning tai chi until my fifties have been much-needed opportunities to rearrange and enhance my sense of identity and my ability to cope with significant forces and events in my life over which I have little to no control.

Deciding to be a beginner is what has allowed a Zensylvania state of mind to exist.