It seems dangerous to me to silence the reptilian brain?
Of course there are limits, in a life-threatening situation you have to have that reaction. You have to be aware of your reaction; in the end everything happens in a split second. In T’ai Chi there is a saying ‘from nothing to something’, your intention is connected to ‘something’, there is nothing in between. To take a moment to relax, to ground, to have your intention clear, and then to take action is too slow: you are too late. So you stay in nothingness, in the open space, grounded and trained; if something happens, the action is there immediately.
You go along softly, there is contact, and in both boxing and PH the right timing is important, perceiving very precisely. GM Peter Ralston also says: you are open, you are connected, you are in interaction. At normal speed you don’t have time to think, you see what is happening, you perceive, you feel the whole, your eyes are open but not too focused, and you move with the interaction.
What GM Chen does in the beginning, and I’m very grateful for that, is: no blocking, so no warding off. Because if you are continually blocking, you are constantly protecting yourself. You continually go on, back and forth, like a beautiful game.
We also play with strength. I have an exercise in which we take punches, on the belly and the jaw, from very soft to hard, just like in music, a crescendo. You learn to receive properly, and to funnel it to the ground, you go to your limit, but not over it. Then you say: This was enough. Because when you play beyond your edge, you fight, run away or freeze. We stay just before that: how much more can you take? Then you know that. The other way around, it’s also an exercise for the person who gives the punches. He can say, I don’t want to go any harder, so he knows where his limit is. You experience how much that is by observing and experiencing very precisely. You learn to give punches with power but without aggression.
It seems difficult to me to punch a classmate, whom you don’t have anything against. Do you only discover your edges by crossing them?
We touch the edges. Then you can choose whether you want to cross it or not. Expanding your boundaries, that’s what happens in class. Of course only people come to train who want to investigate their edges.
And now we are talking about the physical side of T’ai Chi but it also works in relationships for example, how do you deal with situations at work or in a conflict? That you are there and take your place fully, you don’t have to be hard, but you are sure, grounded, present, open, and you listen. We haven’t used that word yet, it’s very important to listen.
Someone recently told me: listen to the whisper of your body, so that it doesn’t have to shout…
Most people don’t listen very well. That’s what T’ai Chi does, it will make you aware of inner noise, distraction, for example. A beginner has no room to do anything other than learn those movements. But when you’re done with that, you have peace and clarity. The noise is gone. Listening yes, that is what I try to achieve in my lessons.
For me it’s all about softness; I tell my students, this is what you can get from me. This is what I have to offer, softer than soft, I am one of the softest. Only then will the reptilian brain come to rest. By training hardness you stimulate that brain.
About five to six years ago, when I was 60, I felt a very deep acceptance, acceptance, of where I was with T’ai Chi. Until then it was ‘there’s always room for improvement’, ‘one day I’ll get it all figured out’. But then I said ‘Okay, done, I don’t have to prove anything’. Wanting to prove is in my character, and working hard, being a good student. But I thought, hey, this is another part of my life. I’ve taught and studied T’ai Chi all my life and for the first time there was complete acceptance. Coincidentally also then my student Alwin Wubben started making movies of me in my lessons. When I saw them I was satisfied for the first time in my life. At the age of 65, I decided to start a one-time three-year intensive training to pass on what I know. Last year, the first year, there were 17 participants, now 10.
And in the meantime, haven’t you been recognised as Grandmaster by Grandmaster William C. C. Chen?
Yes, that’s special too. I’ve always kept going to Grandmaster Chen. In January I was at a workshop in Bremen with three students. On Sunday morning, just between classes, Grandmaster Chen said: ‘Well, Laura has been here with me the longest’ (other people have been there with him for a long time, but not since 1979), ‘I think it’s time to call her Grandmaster, she’s doing it so long and she has so many students, actually you can call her Big Sister’. For him, the title Grandmaster is a kind of generational title; if you have your diploma you are a master, then you have a level at which you can pass something on. And if you train masters, you’re a grandmaster. There was a lot of confusion about it, for example one of my colleagues said that you’re not my grandmaster. I said, no, of course not, that’s not the intention, because we are colleagues. So Big Sister is a good alternative. It is, however, a great honour and a great responsibility in the whole of the lineage, in the line. Of course it’s not just any old thing, I don’t know anyone who has received this title from him.
How does this title fit your desire to accept your level?
Maybe that’s the hallmark of grand-mastery. When you get a title like that, you already are that, it’s the recognition of it; it’s not that you’re going to have to become one now.
Aren’t you afraid that you need to maintain a top level?
No, that’s not what it’s about. We can talk about my fall earlier this year, or the fact that someone at class pushed me away, or that someone got in a good punch. Grand-mastership doesn’t mean that things like this will never happen again; I’m still a teacher.
Many teachers are afraid of giving pushing hands or boxing classes; they don’t want to be shown up. But that happens. The question is: what do you do with it? In Indianapolis I wanted to demonstrate an application of the first Ward-off as a pull with a student who was this big guy. Normally he loved the lessons and he was a real fan, but then, in a large group with many beginners, he wanted to challenge me and decided to really root. I couldn’t demonstrate that particular technique. That’s an interesting moment, so what do you do? I just pushed him the other way. That’s grand-mastery, that you go along with what’s happening. Another might say that as a grandmaster you should always be able to perform the technique you want, but that’s not how I see it.
I call myself a T’ai Chi athlete. That’s the name I came up with when I fell earlier this year. Immediately after the fall and later during my recovery I used a lot of T’ai Chi. A very precise body awareness that has helped me enormously with this. Another nice word I came up with was movement intelligence.