‘Myth is the initiation into the mystery of being alive’. So began Tew Bunnag at the start of our few days at Roselidden in Cornwall in the spring of 2019. I’ve always been fascinated by myth, brought up from childhood on the Greek myths and now deeply intrigued by the mythologist Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey which has helped me to make sense of the world and my place in it. I don’t believe that myths are abstract theories or quaint beliefs of ancient peoples; they are linked to the human psyche and are manifestations of the universal and individual need to explain social and spiritual realities.
Tew tells us that in the t’ai chi we can work these myths into a set of interlocking narratives which reference the universal myth and connect with our personal myth so that we can find out where we are on the map of life and death. We all share the basic narrative of birth, growing old, of sickness and death – the milestones that prompted the Buddha to embark on his search for the truth. And in between these are woven the fabric of our own lives; of laughter, of love, of loss.
For Tew the language of myth is rooted in the early Chinese cultures before Taoism and the I-Ching out of which came all ways of thinking. Out of the deep emptiness and no being of the Wu comes the phenomenal world – the Yeo; out of no form comes form, out of the field of energy comes phenomena; out of the ocean comes life. The dance of the t’ai chi is the communion between form and no form and the mythic language is a way of expressing that form. If we are not able to absorb the wonder of life, the enchantment of being alive then we have lost our connection to the myth. We miss those mythic moments that connect us to our unique singularity, the moment felt here and now, the moments of authenticity.
The story begins with our connection to the earth; that holds us up through life and receives us when we die. The myth then accompanies us on a journey where we can take the shape of the tiny yellow bird, the white crane, the golden cockerel, the sea snake, the praying mantis, the wild mare, the clever monkey, the Jade lady and the great tiger. They are all our guides and mentors; they set us on the path and wait for us at the edge of the labyrinth, they bring us gifts and they teach us how to be.
Moving through sky, earth, fire and water we first gently touch the bird’s tail, usually called grasping the sparrow’s tail in the T’ai chi form. Sometimes we need to move with a gentle touch, with awareness and sensitivity for we cannot catch or keep a bird’s tail; it’s as elusive as the Tao. We become diminished by grasping and we are no longer open to the mystery of our changing world. We fail to recognise the Wu.
When we ‘strum the lute’ we become the praying mantis, ready to pounce on the cicada. We wait silently and patiently and in our arrogance we think we are so clever waiting that we don’t see the danger behind us. This is the yellow bird, the oriole ready to catch us unawares. At the mythic level we have eyes at the back of our heads. Only then are we prepared to look without fear and not be surprised at what we see. Only then are we ready for the unforeseen, for what is behind us. Only then can we treat it with equanimity.
When we ‘spread our wings’ as the white crane we rise above the crowd and survey the scene with a clear overview. In this spacious field of awareness we can rise above the small self, the consciousness and connect with the universal self. Once again we experience the wu, where the two meet together in stillness.
When we move back to ‘still the monkey’ – that monkey mind that jumps from one thing to another – we ‘earth the lightening conductor’. We bring that crazy energy to the earth; we find our presence and through love and compassion comes transcendence.
The wild mare roams the earth, galloping freely through myth as centaur, as unicorn, as Pegasus but in the kicking sections of the t’ai chi she embodies the warrior spirit of the female. The kicking of the horse brings a sense of freedom, of liberation, very distinct from the power of the tiger. It allows us to celebrate the joy of powerful expression with strong female energy, beating a path with flowing mane through stuff that has been confined, suppressed or even abused.
Jade Lady works the loom – traditionally known as ‘fair lady weaves the shuttles’. Jade is the precious, pure material for the oldest sacred Chinese vessels. The lady personifies goodness, compassion and humanity. Like Penelope she weaves the shuttle back and forth uniting the fabric of our lives through love directed out to the four corners, always returning to the centre.
The snake comes from the depths of the earth, representing change. We must be prepared to shed our skins and let go of all we hold onto in order to make the transformation. We dare to meet ourselves at this depth to face our apotheosis and be reborn. When the snake rises in a new cycle it turns into a golden cockerel – the creature that announces the new day with courage and uprightness. It voices what needs to be said. It tells us that we can survive terrible things without losing our dignity; that we are capable of living heroic lives.
Riding the tiger is the narrative for our time. Tiger is fire, often dangerous, leading us to cruelty and violence. The mythic journey of the long form can be seen as an integration of the destructive spirit of the tiger into the fierce protector. We have to take a risk, we have to enter the tiger’s lair to confront our fear and then using that bright, fiery energy we need to transform it through acceptance and love. For compassion is transformative, allowing us to ride our tigers, change the narrative of our lives, protect that most precious thing – our humanity and finally to accept our immortality.
And for me, in my narrative, I ride the tiger every day. I fall off every day and climb back on again and all the time I am gathering myself to make the lotus kick of liberation from where I can let go of everything, hand it over in the final most beautiful open hearted gesture of the long form and return to the stillness of mountain.
Dedicated with immense gratitude to Tew who, for nearly forty years, has taught me how to dance the myth, to ride the tiger and return to the stillness of mountain.