MAKING IT STICK
Early last year, my teacher, Almanzo “LaoMa” Lamoureux, began encouraging me to take the Dantian Challenge. Dr. Jay Dunbar, the director of our school, had established the Dantian Challenge in 1999 to honor his teacher, the late Master Jou, Tsung Hwa, who “believed that taijiquan players serious about following the classics should strive to toss a coin at least one foot.”  Whenever LaoMa mentioned it, I would say, “Next year.”
By late 2002, I had good reasons to delay even longer, but I began to realize that given the direction my life was taking, I was waiting for ideal circumstances that wouldn’t materialize, and so I decided to enroll in a 100-Day program offered by my taiji school. In this program, the Dantian Challenge, less intimidatingly called the penny toss, is one of two team goals. It happened that this 100-Day program began on February 1, 2003, which marked the arrival of “my year,” the Year of the Sheep/Goat.
As a participant in the program, I was assigned two partners: Nina, a goldsmith and a senior student of “Dr. Jay,” and Ginna, an aspiring writer in Alaska, who, like me, was a long-distance participant. When I joined the program, I honestly didn’t think I would hit the one-foot mark in the space of a hundred days; however, by mid-April I was in the vicinity of twelve inches, and two days after I traveled to North Carolina on May 7, 2003, I had my accomplishment of the one-foot standard verified.
Ordinarily, I would have undertaken such a challenge alone, but during a rather unsettling period of transition, being joined in common cause with Nina and Ginna through our team goal—tossing a penny one vertical foot using the dantian—made an enormous difference in my ability to keep re-focusing on that goal. Reviewing the record of my imperfect practice, I think of the way in push hands, one must first stay connected with a partner—or quickly reattach when the connection is broken—in order to listen. For these hundred days, my team and personal goals were invisible partners to which I had to stick.
We call Master Jou the “spiritual father” of our taiji school, and I had the privilege of attending a couple of his workshops before his untimely death in 1998. Fortunately, the core of his teachings is embodied in his books. In a prefatory letter published in the fifth and subsequent editions of The Dao of Taijiquan: Way to Rejuvenation, Master Jou discusses the importance of setting goals in achieving breakthroughs in taiji practice. The following heavily edited excerpts from letters to Nina and Ginna record my experience working toward accomplishing the Dantian Challenge during the 100-Day program. To convey a stronger sense of Master Jou’s influence during those hundred days, I have interwoven excerpts from his letter on breakthrough with the excerpts from my letters.  I am forty-seven, the very age he was when he began studying taijiquan in earnest, and though I fall far short, I take heart from his example.
Goals organize energy. They help you use your time and effort more efficiently. Goals are most effective if they are made conscious and meaningful. . . . Have confidence in yourself. If the old masters did it, you can do it. Give up negative habits of thought. Excuses will drain your energy and ruin everything.
February 6, 2003. 3 inches. Because my team goal is the penny toss, one of my personal goals is to practice the Eight Brocades daily for dantian development; the routine I am establishing takes about a half hour. It’s probably the only movement where I can really concentrate on reverse breathing and not lose my place in the form. LaoMa has encouraged me to use the Brocades for dantian development rather than weights or other means.
About a month ago, I tried tossing a penny and was so disappointed by how little I was able to get it to move; last night, however, I did try again, and I was actually able to toss the penny a few inches. LaoMa has encouraged me to “work with the penny” for ten minutes a day in addition to doing the Brocades; I haven’t yet made this a full part of my routine—my husband and cats think I’m weird as it is!—but I will probably try to do so when my life is not quite so chaotic.
In taiji, if the eyes focus on the hand, the mind will follow the hand and allow it to lead. If the eyes focus slightly ahead of the hand, the hand will learn to follow the energy of the hand, and the mind will learn from the hand how to act effectively in the world.
February 16, 2003. 5 inches. Although I’m not yet committing to practicing with the penny on a daily basis, it is increasingly weighing on me—as if the real pennies you have scattered around your house as reminders have been translated into pennies of the mind. I do keep two pennies on my nightstand, and the other night I asked my husband to watch me toss my pennies. The previous night, I had read Annie Dillard’s piece on chopping wood in Winter: A Spiritual Biography of the Season. She describes her ineffectual hacking at wood with an axe—which her neighbors, she later discovered, secretly watched for amusement. Then it occurs to her that she should aim past the wood to the chopping block, and not at the wood itself, and when she next tries it, the wood splits cleanly.
In tossing the penny, I’d simply been concentrating on getting some clearance. So what I did after reading Dillard’s essay was put one of my open hands up to a level where I had successfully tossed the penny. I thought of it as a ceiling that I’d try to hit. When I could do this, I decided to use my index finger extended horizontally as hurdle that I had to launch the penny over—and, surprisingly, I got more height. I was pretty excited about that, and wanted to demonstrate it for my husband. In a slightly different way than Dillard’s neighbors, he found the whole thing a great source of amusement. But I am a little closer, I think, to understanding what Master Jou meant when he said in one the workshops I attended, “It’s all mind.” The next time I practiced with the penny, I’d forgotten what I’d learned and returned to “ordinary” progress. Well, the truth is, I am also having, temporarily, to relocate my center from dantian to chest.
Ask continually, “How is this like taiji?”
February 24, 2003. 6 inches. My other personal goals have been to consult the I Ching daily and simply to write something based on my readings in it. Because I do these things before I go to work in the morning, I’m usually under a certain amount of pressure to finish, to close things off or to go the easy route. I have a tendency to be a very slow starter, and do a lot of rejecting before accepting the one or two things that make it to the page—which is to say that a lot of “writing” goes on before anything makes it to the page. Oddly, having written about my frustration, last week I wrote three new poems. It isn’t as if I took the first idea that came to me, but somehow I began to look at the whole process differently—or, perhaps, I am removing some of the resistances, letting go of my own ideas of the ideal circumstances for writing and am just writing.
[I]deas in books or from any source other than yourself must be personalized in the crucible of your own practice.
March 7, 2003. 6 inches. What I think I most appreciate about taijiquan is the way it impels one forward to train the whole self. After seeing The Secrets of the Golden Flower recur on the daily-slogan sheet we received at the start of the program, I pulled it off my shelf to read. I’d bought it about five years ago but had only skimmed it because it seemed too esoteric for where I was then. It is wonderful to be able to mark one’s progress like this—that is, to reach a point where the truth of a book can unfold because of one’s experience.
Ask continually, “How is this like taiji?”
March 8, 2003. 6 inches. I have managed to stay with the scholarly part of my commitment to the 100-Day program during a pretty hectic time, but I have had a bit of a struggle with my Brocades practice since I last wrote. When I’m writing, everything else seems to be a struggle, and my constant life challenge is to keep that work in perspective.
Over and over again practicing taiji teaches me that to keep one’s appointment—even if that appointment is just ten minutes daily—is an accomplishment, regardless of the results. It’s a way, as one of my writing teachers used to say, to put oneself in a position to be struck by lightning. This is the lesson I have been working on since I left North Carolina in 1998. In Massachusetts, I would go out almost every day to practice regardless of the weather, and there would be long stretches where nothing seemed to happen—for whatever reason. And then things would click—like magic!—except that I began to understand that each day out contributed to that moment. So it is with the penny toss, I think. I had a real scare the other day when I tried tossing the penny, and—nothing! So after a bit of grappling with my own expectation, which made matters worse, I’m back to working on relaxing into the doing—without expectation.
The more often you think of your goal, the more it shapes your reality. Once a week is better than once a month, once a day is better than once a week. Frequency is important and so is the intensity of your mindfulness.
March 16, 2003. 8 inches. I’m glad to hear that you have redirected your focus from results to process—that’s really the way one learns to sustain activity both in taiji and in poetry. It is a message Master Jou continually affirmed by word and deed, and it was, paradoxically, by seeing the results in my taiji practice that I began to take these lessons back to poetry. My situation of being a taiji practitioner without being in the presence of a physical school is a lot like what it means to be a writer outside the academy. While I was in school, there was a lot of talk about “life after the MFA”; it seemed to be a testing period that determined who would “survive” as a writer. It was not easy leaving that supportive community, but for a while I found many things about it liberating, having spent time in so many workshops that, of necessity, make one focus on results. I suspect the “key” to this is making that space you set aside a place you want, most of the time, to spend time in! Another way of saying this is to go where the energy is and then to stick with it even on days when the energy is flagging.
Be open to the lessons hidden in all that comes your way. Remain flexible and see what works for you.
March 25, 2003. 8 inches. I’m glad to hear that your dantian practice is going well. Although I have done a little work on dantian development every day, I would hate to count the number of days I missed doing the Brocades. I am, however, happy to report that I am making steady progress getting back on track. Returning to morning practice has been critical. I had cleared out space in my office, but I found it too cramped; so I worked out an arrangement with my husband that would enable me to practice the Brocades undisturbed in the kitchen/dining room. I hadn’t really thought about it till this morning, but the fact that it is very cold downstairs in the mornings—we turn our heater down to fifty degrees at night—was probably a real disincentive to get up and practice. This has been the first solid week of spring-on-the-way during this, my first spring in New Hampshire, and I’m sure that has helped!
You must be willing to push distractions resolutely from you and do what is necessary to accomplish your goal.
April 1, 2003. 9 inches. Last night I managed to hit the bottom of the drawer twice! But I wasn’t able to do that again during today’s practice. Inspired by Denise’s amazing achievement of the chin-to-toe team goal, I’ve found myself focusing more on the penny toss for the past few days.
Perhaps because we are now on the downhill run toward the end of the program, my priorities are shifting. Although I have steadfastly continued to read the I Ching and write daily, I am less focused when I do sit down to deal with those activities. With respect to my writing, as I may have mentioned, this may have something to do with the attention I have given to the war in Iraq as well as the fact that I had not been outdoors to practice taiji for about two weeks.
[Y]ou must strive to accept responsibility for your own development—to acquire sensitivity to the flow of your own unfolding and your specific weaknesses and needs.
April 9, 2003. 9 inches. I’m glad to hear that you have found a table that is the perfect height for working on tossing the penny a foot—and I know exactly what you mean in saying how daunting it is to see the distance. I’ve used incremental marks, which are far more encouraging in that one can note progress by them. I keep a tape measure and various little markers near me when I practice under my portable filing cabinet drawer. I have only been able to get the penny to strike the bottom of the drawer during two practices. After hitting it that once, I started doing the penny toss twice a day, and I’m afraid I overdid it a bit. This overdoing is probably the reason this period, which started on March 20th, has not entirely stopped. I’ve had recurrent battles with anemia over the years, and it wasn’t till a few days ago that I began noting that I’ve been sensitive to the cold lately and very tired, both telltale signs of anemia—and decided that I’d better back off. So I’ve been something of a slug with respect to any sort of dantian work. It’s frustrating, but I’m hoping to be able to start up again tomorrow.
Do not be afraid to change your practice.
April 20, 2003. 10 inches. I am still struggling through “female” problems brought about by the penny toss, and it’s hard to say whether I’ve used that as an excuse to cut back on the Brocades and concentrate almost exclusively on the penny toss for the sake of dantian development. Only in the last few days have I been able to hit the bottom of my drawer—a little over ten inches—consistently, and I’ve recently set up a twelve-inch mark that I have so far grazed just once.
Only your hunger for greater achievement will impel you to breakthrough.
April 20, 2003. 10 inches. LaoMa used to quote Master Jou as saying, “How can you control the world when you can’t even control your own body?” And my own practice tells me that the hardest things to really learn are the most fundamental things. (Think of Master Jou going back to abdomen in/abdomen out or the five positions of the hands or standing in the star posture. It would be hard, I think, to convince all but the most dedicated beginner to start there.) I believe this is why breakthroughs occur when we begin to pare down to the essentials. Changes on that level affect everything we do.
The paradox is that we have to have something to work with in order to focus on the principles. Robert Frost somewhere said about writing poems that we must proceed on insufficient knowledge, and the same is true of taiji, I think. We learn as we go. Or maybe it’s like a peony opening in its own time—in the beginning, the center is hidden; this is true of the hip joints—and of the mind. In poetry, patience, perseverance, and humility before the art are needful—as is the faith—which in times of struggle could be mistaken for arrogance—to believe that one can do this thing. I suspect this is the normal course of development for people who make a commitment to any art.
If you can remember your goal and yield to the possibility of change, you will indeed breakthrough and begin to live at higher levels of energy and consciousness.
May 15, 2003. 14 inches. I knew that all your good wishes were with me for the Dantian Challenge! I’ve had just little glimpses of how hectic your life has been over the past few months, and I’ve appreciated that you’ve made time to write regularly through it all.
As often as you remember, ask yourself, “If I were indeed a master, how would I act in this situation? How do I act with this person from the space of mastery? How does the master sit? How does the master eat?” Remembrance is the greatest key, linked to the cultivation of your will and the power of your imagination.
 For more information about the tradition of one hundred days of concentrated training in internal martial arts, the Dantian Challenge, or the chin-to-toe stretch (mentioned later in this piece), visit www.magictortoise.com.
 Excerpts are from Jou, Tsung Hwa’s The Dao of Taijiquan: Way to Rejuvenation, 7th ed., ed. by Lori S. Elias, Sharon Rose, [and] Loretta Wollering (Warwick, New York: Taiji Foundation, 1998), 11-16.
Copyright © by Debra Kang Dean