Making Ugly Things Beautiful

Written by Gavin King. Posted in Articles by Gavin King, Lessons of a Taiji Student

There is an inherent beauty that can be seen within all things in the universe.  The trouble I have is that I seem to have missed my allotted dose of ‘beauty’ being blessed instead with a busted nose, generously proportioned ears and natural gift for ‘gangliness’,

“You look like a disco dancer having an epileptic fit!” Sifu laughed confirming that my lack of beauty had followed me into taiji.

“I take it that’s not a good thing?” I laughed as Sifu mimicked my attempt at a section of the form called ‘wave hands like clouds’.

Sifu has an endless supply of metaphors to describe my unsuccessful attempts at taiji that usually bring us both close to tears.  He has a very unique way of insulting practically everything I do without ever offending which I think is due to him also sharing my status of not being one of gods ‘beautiful children’.  It’s quite funny when people first see him because using his own words; he looks like a ‘football hooligan’.  There is very little natural grace about him and, well, he just doesn’t look like someone who should do taiji.

“The waist should be constantly moving which will cause the hands to ‘float’ like clouds…” he continued after we’d finished laughing, “… watch.”

As he demonstrated his body seemed to loose all of its weight and glided effortlessly across floor as his arms swirled like leaves playing on a gentle breeze – there is no other way of describing the movements other than ‘beautiful’.  I watched in awe.

“Taiji has a wonderful ability to make the ‘ugly’ beautiful.” He smiled.  “Often when I describe myself as ‘ugly’ my sweeter students will leap to my defence and say something like, ‘Oh you’re not ugly!’… “

“I’d be more inclined to agree with you!” I cheekily interrupt.

“Hence why I said my ‘sweeter students’! Anyway, when I describe myself as ‘ugly’ I have to explain that I’m not referring to ‘ugly’ in the egotistical sense I’m talking about a specific ‘quality’.  Within the movements of taiji there is a ‘something’ that happens through which we become ‘beautiful’ and more importantly a ‘something’ that allows us to directly experience ‘beauty’ – which is something very rare in our modern society!” he explained.

In today’s world we are used to having everything manufactured by way of assembly lines and I believe that we are fast loosing our appreciation of what ‘beauty’ really is.  We are all able to spot the superficially attractive, but for me true ‘beauty’ has a depth that moves beyond the surface permeating deep down into the object it envelops.   Something of true ‘beauty’ mesmerizes and entices the senses like a snake charmer charms a snake – it is quality that captivates the beholder.

During a lecture the late philosopher Alan Watts gave a wonderful talk how our ‘palettes’ evolve in ever increasing levels of sophistication to the point that eventually we can only perceive highly refined and complex stimulus.  He uses the example of drinking and the art of the wine connoisseur.  Within the wine world people become ‘snobs’ to the point that they only find enjoyment in the finest of wines and will turn their nose up at anything that does not agree with their highly refined palette.  What they have done is taken the appreciation in the beauty of ‘taste’ to such an extent that they can no longer appreciate the simple tastes of the universe.  On a larger scale as a society we are becoming oblivious to the simple natural beauty that occurs all around us – our definition of beauty has become overtly ‘refined’ so that anything other than the glitzy and glamorous appears bland and even coarse to our overindulged tastes.  Like the wine connoisseurs ‘palettes’ we have become so sophisticated that we can no longer ‘taste’ the simple beauty of life.

During one of the first courses Sifu held for my students he gave them a chance to ‘taste’ the beauty of taiji first hand.  The course was on the martial aspect of taiji training covering grappling, striking and the mindset needed for combat and to finish the course he demonstrated the Long Boxing form.  It had been a long course and everyone was tired and their focus was waning. 

Sifu stepped out to start the form standing quietly in the middle of the hall.  After a pause to prepare himself he seemed to be swept away into a whirlwind.  Every movement of his body spiralled at a ferocious yet exquisite pace and every eye in the hall was fixated on him.  At the end there was a hushed silence as everyone had a look on their face that said ‘surely he shouldn’t be able to do that?’ – which of course he can, proving that taiji really can make the ugly beautiful.

It is often said that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ but I think the ‘beauty’ we experience within taiji transcends aesthetic appreciation.   It is a beauty that many of us have witnessed but very few ever experience. When I first began studying taiji Sifu told me that it is not something that is learnt but rather experienced – and I think the same is true of this underlying quality of ‘beauty’.  I’ve always enjoyed watching skilled people performing their craft – when you see a true master at work they seem to operate on a different level of existence whereby even the seemingly mundane becomes an art form.  I’ve witnessed this artistic manifestation in hundreds of different fields; painting, building, singing, cooking and numerous other unrelated activities that all share a common vibe of creative manifestation through which the practitioners ‘soul’ seems to communicate.  If I were to put my finger on this ‘quality’ that I see amongst all truly skilled people I’d have to say it is the ease and effortless manner in which they perform their ‘arts’.  Perhaps it is in this ‘naturalness’ through which true universal ‘beauty’ is communicated?

This inherent ‘beauty’ is a common experience that has been investigated and described in many of the traditions of the world and is a level of perception that is experienced in austere religious and meditative practices and amongst skilled artists and craftsmen but often alludes the common folk whose lives are rarely concerned with such matters.  Most of us don’t have the aspiration and inclination to become monks and lack the natural aptitude to become artists, poets and musicians so are condemned to observe ‘beauty’ from a distance but never ever experience it directly meaning that we miss out on a huge chunk of the human experience – and it is through this ‘chunk’ that we look upon the universe as a single interconnected entity and can appreciate its true beauty.

Contrary to Sifu’s claim that taiji has this magical ability to alchemise the ‘ugly’ into the ‘beautiful’ I’d yet to feel like anything other Quasimodo’s uglier brother when performing taiji and recently I had the chance to show off my ‘ugly’ taiji to a group of potential students which had me feeling more self conscious than ever.  When I arrived at the venue I was led into luxurious garden with a small crowd who’d come to see the ‘taiji man’ do his thing.  I gave a brief talk about taiji and the benefits of its study and asked if anyone in the crowd had any experience – one lady enthusiastically raised her hand.  My heart sank,

“Fantastic, what style of taiji have you studied?” I asked trying to gauge if she’d be able to notice the ineptness of my impending performance.

“Yang style.”  She said proudly.

‘Excellent – me too!” I replied feigning enthusiasm whilst cursing her under my breath.

To begin with I felt every stare piecing my skin and my throat was trying to climb out of my mouth.  Everything I was doing felt tentative and nervous and then for some unknown reason something inside me let go.  It was as if someone had just released a weight that was holding me back and I seemed to slip out of myself.  I glided with total ease to the end of the form and stood still totally immersed in the moment oblivious to my audience.  A mental ‘blink’ brought me back to reality where I realised that everyone was focussed on me intently.  A little voice in my head said, “Quick, say something before they realise you didn’t mean to do that!”

“We don’t ‘do’ taiji we ‘experience’ it!”  I improvised trying to sound as ‘sifu-like’ as I could.

“Taiji is a sensual art through which we connect to and intimately experience every part of our mind and body.  It entices the senses as we become aware of every muscle change, every shift of weight, every change of breath, absolutely everything as we truly ‘feel’ our entire body!   Are there any questions?” I asked finishing my attempt hiding how ecstatic I was with my performance.

This was the first time that I’d experienced ‘ease’ in my taiji in front of a crowd.  I’d been swept away not caring if anyone was watching and even if anyone like it and it was a wonderfully liberating experience.  Whether it looked beautiful or not was irrelevant, it felt beautiful and I tried to savour that experience.  Something inside me had switched off the nagging self doubt and allowed me to just get on with the performance – it felt dynamic and judging by the looks on the faces of the crowd must have looked OK too…

Being a long-term student of eastern philosophy I know I’m supposed to be devoid of ego but I was on cloud nine.  As I’ve said I’m not one of god’s beautiful children nor am I blessed naturally with any physical prowess but still taiji has managed start to working its magic on me.  The wonderful thing about it is that it doesn’t require you to be naturally gifted – in fact many of the greatest taiji masters had to over come many obstacles to become ‘beautiful’ meaning that it is an art that anyone can become skilled in and appreciate the ‘naturalness’ of the universe. 

Taiji truly entices and connects us to our senses.  Perhaps it is not that taiji makes the ugly beautiful but rather it cleanses our ‘palettes’ so we can taste all of life’s beauty.  Either way it is a path of study that is not exclusive to the talented and gifted and that allows for anyone to experience the simple pleasure of moving and experiencing both the body and mind.  And if it can work for me it’ll work for anyone!

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