Several years ago, I led a number of taijiquan retreats at a resort in the Cascade Mountains of central Washington. One of the group activities during a break from the taiji sessions was a short forest hike by the river flowing through the property.
In addition to maintaining this beautiful path, the local trail association had posted signs along the way. Some pointed out facts about life in the riparian ecosystem. Some were quotes from well-known naturalists like John Muir and Edward Abbey. But one made me smile, moved me to tears, and has remained with me all these years later.
It asked a simple question:
“What would you do if you knew you were nourished by the stream?”
Taijiquan is a martial art. And yet, it’s practiced in slow motion without tension or effort. It’s also a healing art, part of the much larger body of work, qigong (“energy work”), that encompasses everything from seated meditation to motionless stances to intentional, integrated breathing and moving exercises.
As a martial art, taiji seeks to sustain or regain balance and disarm adversarial conditions by honoring and defending the sanctuary inherent in all creation. So, it is fundamentally a relationship art, and is grounded in an intimate connection and partnership with the Earth.
How we touch and move on the Earth matters. It influences our own state of mind and emotions, and affects the responses we elicit from the world around us. That’s why taiji is practiced in slow motion, and why one of the first and most often repeated lessons in taiji is “Never land with weight on your feet.”
The Earth is seen not as an inanimate object, but as a living organism, part of our living world. And so, when we walk, we aren’t just putting our feet on dirt or grass or concrete, we are placing our feet on the face of Gaia, Mother Earth.
Choosing to place our feet lightly and intentionally rather than slapping them down without thought, is a way to cultivate a new and transformative relationship with the ground beneath us, with the conditions in our daily circumstances, and with the meaning we find in being here.
But there is more to how we walk than our mood or mental state. The healing and protecting power in taiji and qigong flows not from the shapes that their movements make, but from what those shapes open us to—the ceaseless stream of life flowing through us every moment. This stream, this qi, has a nearly limitless capacity to nourish us. But we have a role in the process. We determine how willingly we receive that nourishment, how well we sustain it, and how much we share its abundance.
That role has never been more critical. In a world where global warming is driving cataclysmic changes, we are faced with an existential threat to life itself. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the challenge and the small insignificance of our individual influence. But the classic writings on taijiquan, hundreds of years old, offer a different perspective, and a lesson in hope and courage in the form of an axiom:
A force of four ounces deflects a thousand pounds.
The taiji practice of wu wei (“empty stepping”), approaches walking as one of our most profound gifts—both to receive and to give. With every step, we’re given an opportunity to splash in the ceaseless stream of life. There’s even an acupuncture point, a qi gate, at the back edge of the ball of the foot called yong chuan, or “bubbling spring.”
With every step, we have an equal opportunity to give energy back into the biosphere. When we walk in this way, mindfully receiving, mindfully giving as we breathe in and breathe out, walking down the street is changed forever.
No individual alone can turn the tide of global warming and restore balance to the relationship between humanity and the planet on which we live and depend. But that doesn’t mean we’re helpless. We can exert transformative influence within the sphere of our life by tending to the how of our interactions.
By simply changing how we walk on Earth, we begin to change the dynamic between our living and the quality and sustainability of life. We begin to embody the truth of being a steward and an ambassador of Gaia. When we do that, each step we take sends ripples throughout the biosphere; we think, feel, and perceive differently; and life, increasingly, responds in kind.
If we listen right down to the soles of our feet, life becomes a living conversation.