For me, Tai Chi is the perfect complement for the writing life. A meditative, do-it-anywhere physical discipline that builds strength, flexibility, coordination and balance, Tai Chi is just the right tonic for a profession that involves a lot of solitude and sitting.
But the study of Tai Chi also promotes a character and frame of mind that supports the writing life. At Master Gohring’s Tai Chi and Kung Fu, where I’ve studied for five years, we remind ourselves at the end of each class that we follow the Five Hearts: Faith, Respect, Patience, Perseverance and Humility.
The five hearts work for writers, too.
Faith is not about religion; it’s about committing to your choice of discipline. In writing, it’s not indulging doubts about whether you should even try to write.
I take it a step further and strive to keep faith in the book I am working on. It’s hard, when you’re struggling, not to go haring off after another idea entirely. Set aside the questions; have faith that you are meant to write, and meant to write this book.
Respect: In Tai Chi, we respect the masters and teachers and students who have gone before us and from whom we learn. As writers, we respect the craft and the great writers who have gone before us, as well as other writers and other genres than our own.
We respect readers, too, and opinions different from your own. We should even respect our own negative reviewers—or am I going too far? Just kidding. Respect is an attentive attitude, the antidote for carelessness, dismissiveness, and stagnation.
Patience is remembering that you can’t do it all or learn it all in a day, or even a year—or many years. Your first draft is not a masterpiece. Of course not. Patience: give yourself a chance. Tai Chi and writing both take time and work.
Perseverance goes without saying. Setbacks and disappointments are unimportant. Those who quit cannot succeed.
Humility: In Tai Chi, there is always more to learn, more that you don’t know. Same with us. Every book is a fresh challenge.
The five “life skills” are affirmations with accompanying Kung Fu movements. They help build the attitude we strive for in our study of Tai Chi, and they work for writing, too.
The path of self-mastery requires balanced emotions; balanced emotions do not yield to negativity. You don’t lose your motivation or confidence when you get a tough critique, a bad review or rejection, or when someone casually says something devastating about your efforts and goals.
The path of self-mastery requires a courageous heart; a courageous heart shows strength in the face of fear. What are our fears as writers? Failure, scorn, bad reviews, the risk of putting ourselves out there. We resolve to meet fear with strength.
The path of self-mastery requires a focused mind; a focused mind sees no obstacles. This isn’t about putting your head in the sand. An “obstacle” does not prevent you from getting to your goal. It’s just a challenge, a thing in the road, a problem to be solved so you can reach your goal.
The path of self-mastery requires persistent action; persistent action achieves a goal without quitting. See perseverance above! Writing, like Tai Chi, is a discipline.
The path of self-mastery requires a creative spirit; a creative spirit has no self-doubt. For us, this affirmation applies when we are doing the purest part of our work, when we are creating and letting it out. I love these words by Martha Graham:
It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions… You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. [See the whole passage.]
Elizabeth Buhmann is the author of murder mystery Lay Death at Her Door and has a black sash in Tai Chi. She also maintains an online Tai Chi Notebook. She studies Tai Chi at Master Gohring’s Tai Chi and Kung Fu in Austin and practices with a group of Chinese friends on the weekends.