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Not everything in life can or should go as planned. When things go askew, we are required to re-consider our situation. We are challenged to adapt, change and improvise.
Plans are by their very nature flawed - ideas cannot extend to reality. We cannot allow for every variable and permutation. It is unsurprising that events frequently fail to go as we had hoped.
Modern life in the West can be a little too easy for many people.
You have comfortable seats, cars, mobile phones, remote controls, air conditioning, central heating, expensive clothing and more food than you can eat.
You go on holiday when you get bored. You pay for entertainment without a second thought. If things don't go your way, you gripe, gossip, moan or complain.
Nothing in life tests your mettle quite like an ordeal...
There is no teacher but the enemy.
Only he will tell you where you are weak,
where he is strong.
You can't always get what you
Being thwarted can very good for us. Hardship trains strong character traits: courage, stamina, hope and determination. Under pressure, we are challenged with the weaker aspects of our nature.
Overcoming our own inadequacies is an important part of learning tai chi combat.
People seek to beat stress by running away from it. Stress is not something apart from yourself. You cannot leave it behind. It is caused by your inability to cope.
Coping is what needs to be cultivated. Your inner demons must be faced and vanquished.
An ordeal is a trial, a deliberate hardship that you undertake of your own free will. We offer our students a series of challenges in our syllabus. Ordeals.
They are extremely trying and will test your mettle. Some are feats of stamina and endurance. Others are about concentration.
Most of our challenges test your ability to cope with situations that offer you no scope for control. You must stop fighting and give in to what is happening.
When you have become the eye of the storm, you can act with strength and sincerity.
Our students are required to stand for 30 minutes whilst holding a series of 6 postures. There are two different sets to try. The second is much harder than the first.
The qigong challenges are quite difficult to begin with. People tense-up quite badly and fight their own bodies. The mind races and they panic.
Over time, students reach a stage where they find the prolonged standing to be tolerable.
As their physical condition improves, the ordeal ceases to be an ordeal and students ask to undertake the 30 minutes standing simply because they want to.
An 'experienced' student learns to cope when faced with unknown stimuli and diminished sensory capacity.
They undergo regular work involving multiple partners and a great deal of confusion. We take away your security and your ability to simply react.
You are required to give-in, relax and stop trying to control the situation.
Composure is everything. When you cease to care about the outcome, your inward duality ceases. You begin to feel, to hear and to see. You respond to what is, rather than your own ideas.
The challenges are initially quite easy but become increasingly demanding and perhaps outrageous. By asking more and more of yourself, you stop being bothered by unexpected events.
You stop being worried. You treat it all as play.
There is a Zen story about a man who asks to learn samurai sword skills from a retired hermit...
The hermit makes the man perform household chores.
The man is unhappy with this and asks for formal tuition.
The hermit agrees but does not teach anything.
Instead, he attacks the man with a stick without warning throughout the day.
Initially the man is unhappy and feels upset.
He is repeatedly caught off guard and feels vulnerable and afraid.
Initially, he is paranoid and annoyed.
Over time, his habits and behaviour changes. He becomes composed and capable.
The attack comes and the man simply deals with it as it is happening.
This is how we are teaching our students. The setting and methods are different but the principle is the same.
Discord is the necessary counterpart of harmony, just as disorder compliments order.
Taoists are not simplistic optimists. They understand that the broad balance and harmony is complex and dynamic. Everything is always dynamically balancing with itself. Thus we are always in a condition of dynamic balancing with ourselves and the world. To be balanced is to be balancing.
In every moment there is the opportunity for the balance and harmony to maintain or restore itself if we have enough skill to move appropriately with the dynamics of the process. Balance restores itself from instant to instant when the sage discovers moment by moment how to let the inherent condition return in its own way.
Scour away weakness
An ordeal can serve to scour away your weaknesses. You face your own hypocrisy and self-deceit. You come to terms with yourself. It is an amazing thing to be faced with a mirror of your own character.
You may not be too impressed with what you see. We are all fools and geniuses, good people and bad. The whole scope of human character lies within us all.
Ordeals make you look long and hard. Having truly looked, you change.
You do it to yourself
Some people turn perfectly reasonable situations into an ordeal. Essentially they torture themselves. The innate need to suffer and find hardship turns something simple into a really unpleasant event.
People like this have no need of ordeals. Or maybe they do... Perhaps something real will jolt them out of their habitual martyrdom?
Many ordeals seem to fall upon us unexpectedly: job loss, homelessness, addiction, cancer, failed relationship... Some are less dramatic, but equally distressing.
Again, what is needed is the ability to cope. To endure. To see it through. Everyone is strong. Everyone has grit. You just have to realise it and bring the stronger part of you to the forefront.
We are in relationship with everyone around us. Often our relationships are disagreeable. Yet, it is not so easy to extricate ourselves from them.
You cannot simply quit your job because you dislike somebody. It is necessary to put up with the situation. To learn how to cope. To release your tension.
Intimate relationships are more complex than all others. You usually need to really work at the relationship if you want it to last.
The partnership should not be an ordeal, but if it feels like one, something is amiss and needs to be addressed. People quit too easily.
If you have invested a lot of time and effort in a relationship, be prepared to listen and have consideration.
Family can represent an ordeal of a very personal and unpleasant nature. Relations with your own parents are often difficult enough. But in-laws are something else entirely.
It is quite common for people to have serious difficulties with their in-laws. Rather than be bullied or irritated by your in-laws, treat them as a challenge. Stay integrated and true to yourself.
Do not allow them dominion over you, and take whatever reasonable steps you can to avoid offending them in return.
Become aloof and immoveable. Unsullied by manipulation and pettiness. Be polite but distant. Endure them.
that which you think you cannot bear is really to bear.
18 March 1997
Last updated 16 June 2023