Thursday, September 2, 2010

Being Soft

Nothing in the world is softer and more supple than water,
Yet when attacking the hard and the strong,
nothing can surpass it.
The supple overcomes the hard.
The soft overcomes the strong.
None in the world does not know this.
Yet none can practice it.

(Lao Tzu: chapter 78)

The concept of softness in eastern philosophy is very different from the common western use of the word. This term, which comes up time and again in Tai Chi Chuan and Yoga, implies an internal feeling of being completely relaxed and at ease, at equilibrium. It happens when there is fearlessness - when one doesn't feel threatened from within or outside, even if there is attack of any kind (in the real world, we are often faced with threats to our peace of mind, if not actual physical pain or discomfort). In the face of attack, one can then focus on how best to fend off the attack - in Tai Chi, one is instructed to yield to the force like water, be able to absorb it and then throw it out when least expected, unbalancing the attacker. In Yoga, one is attempting to prevent or deflect rather than fight. But, the lessons are useful for our simple, everyday battles - whether against road rage, bossy bosses or lazy subordinates.

I have found the concept very helpful in my recent visits to dentists and other doctors. The inflicted pain of drilling, invasive examinations etc. has a hard, brittle quality that contains (fortunately, several times) a distinct transience. Remove pressure from the nerve and you feel nothing. And so, while moving the softness that I interpret as deepness of breath, relaxation of muscles (especially of the shoulders and lower back) and calming of the mind, I am able to yield to the pain without making it a traumatic experience and without fighting it constantly. The moment the source of pain is removed, I am then able to focus on regaining equilibrium and moving on. Thus I have managed to take minor drilling without anesthesia etc. in my stride.

Of course, the mind moves faster than any physical object, and in these situations it is that (and one's internal state) that need to be 'soft and fearless'. In the words of the Tai Chi teacher, Prof. Cheng Man-ch'ing -

'Moreover, one who is soft will not be afraid to respond to an attacker's speed and strength in an effective manner... The first and most difficult point of all is: you have to believe in what I say. If you don't believe it, when the person comes to attack you, you will resist him and then it will already be too late.'

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