Prison of the Mind
A former child
chess prodigy, burned out and alienated, learned wholeness from a humble Tai
Excerpted with permission from "The Art of Learning" (Free Press).
The subject of the book and movie, "Searching for Bobby Fischer,"
Josh Waitzkin played chess from the age of six, winning many championships. But
the stress of competition and living "in a cerebral bubble" took
their toll. In his new book, Josh describes the practice that finally helped
I think what initially struck me that fall evening, when I watched my first Tai
Chi class, was that the goal was not winning, but, simply, being. Each of the
twelve people on the dojo floor seemed to be listening to some quiet, internal
muse. The group moved together, slowly gliding through what looked like an
earthy dance. The teacher, William C. C. Chen, flowed in front of the students,
leading the meditation. He was sixty-four years old but in the moment he could
have passed for anywhere between forty and eighty, one of those ageless beings
who puts out the energy of an ancient gorilla. He moved dreamily, as if he were
in a thick cloud. Watching Chen, I had the impression that every fiber of his
body was pulsing with some strange electrical connection. His hand pushed
through empty space like it was feeling and drawing from the subtlest ripples
in the air; profound, precise, nothing extra. His grace was simplicity itself.
I sat entranced. I had to learn more.
The next day I went back to the school to take my first class. I remember that
as I stepped onto the floor, my skin prickled with excitement. Everyone was
warming up, swaying around with their fists slapping into their lower backs in
what I would later learn was a Qigong exercise. I tried to follow but my
shoulders felt tight. Then Chen walked onto the floor and the room was silent.
He smiled gently as he found his place in front of the class. Then he slowly
closed his eyes while exhaling deeply, his mind moving inward, everything
settling into stillness, his whole body becoming molten and live. I was rapt.
From the stillness, his palms floated up, the simplest movement was profound
from this man, and he began to lead us through the opening postures of the Tai
Chi form. I followed along as best I could. All the profundity I was struck by
in Chen's form combined with a sense of total befuddlement. His grace was a
world away. I felt stiff and awkward.
After ten minutes Chen broke the class into groups, and I was put with a senior
student who patiently described the basic principles of Tai Chi's body
mechanics. As we repeated the first few movements over and over, I was told to
release my hip joints, breathe into the lower abdomen, relax my shoulders and
back. Relax, relax, relax. I never knew I was so tense! After years of hunching
over a chessboard, my posture needed serious attention. The man explained that
my head should float as though it were suspended by a string from the crown
point. This felt good.
Over the next few months, I learned the sixty basic movements of the meditative
form. I was a beginner, a child learning to crawl, and the world began to lift
off my shoulders. Chess was irrelevant on these wooden floors. There were no
television cameras, no fans, no suffocating pressure. I practiced for hours
every evening. Slowly bur surely, the alien language began to feel natural, a
part of me. My previous attempts at meditation had been tumultuous -- a ball of
nerves chilling itself out. Now it was as if my insides were being massaged
while my mind floated happily through space. As I consciously released the
tension from one part of my body at a time, I experienced a surprising sense of
physical awareness. A subtle buzzing tickled my fingers. I played with that
feeling, and realized that when deeply relaxed, I could focus on any part of my
body and become aware of a rich well of sensation that had previously gone
unnoticed. This was interesting.
From my first days at the school, my interactions with William Chen were
stirring. His teaching style was understated, his body a well of information.
He seemed to exist on another wavelength, wrapped into a sublime reality that
he shared through osmosis. He spoke softly, moved deeply, taught those who were
ready to learn. Gems were afterthoughts, hidden beneath the breath, and you
could pick them up or not -- he hardly seemed to care. I was amazed how much of
his subtle instruction went unnoticed.
It is Chen's
opinion that a large obstacle to a calm, healthy, present existence is
the constant interruption of our natural breathing patterns. A thought or
ringing phone or honking tear interrupts an out-breath and so we stop and begin
to inhale. Then we have another thought and stop before exhaling. The result is
shallow breathing and deficient flushing of carbon dioxide from our systems, so
our cells never have as much pure oxygen as they could. Tai Chi meditation is, among other
things, a haven of unimpaired oxygenation.
Whether or not imperfect breath patterns or just plain stress was my problem, my
quality of life was greatly improved during my first few months of Tai Chi
practice. It remarkable how developing the ability to be physically
introspective changed my world. Aches and pains dissolved with small postural
tweaks. If I was stressed out, I did Tai Chi and was calmed. Suddenly I had an
internal mechanism with which to deal with external pressures.
On a deeper level, the practice had the effect of connecting disparate elements
of my being. My whole life I had been an athletic guy who practiced a
sport of the mind. As a boy I had been devoted to my love for chess, and my
passion was so unfettered that body and soul were united in the task. Later, as
I became alienated from chess, my physical instincts were working in opposition
to my mental training. I felt trapped in a cerebral bubble, like a tiger in a
cage. Now I was learning how to systematically put those elements of my being
back together. In early 1999, Master Chen invited me to begin Push Hands
practice. I had no idea that his quiet offer would change my life.
'The Art of Learning,' by Josh Waitzkin, with permission of Free Press, May
2008. Copyright 2008 Josh Waitzkin. Josh, an eight-time National Chess Champion
in his youth, was the subject of the book and movie 'Searching for Bobby Fisch