No danger, she said, no danger at all, this way, or that, the cliff trail, or the trail by the sea. If you listen carefully to the world, it will tell you: step here, on this tuft of grass, but not there, where the ground is sandy, and will give way. Listen carefully, and the tide will tell you: yes, it's OK to cross now, but hurry; or no, this is no time to go slipping among wet rocks and waves sucking out at sand-swirling water. You must listen, and then there will be no danger.
Expectations are premeditated resentments, he said. To whatever extent you are carrying an idea of the terrain that fills your ears and eyes with topographical trivia, you are not listening, you are not seeing, and then there is danger. You will ignore the sheep-corpse and the side-eyed trucker; you will forget that in this land in this season, five-thirty is dark. You will wander blinded and deafened, accumulating resentments, never quite seeing all the faces of safety beckoning to you. You will expect and be disappointed. You will fail.
No danger means: you don't look good, and you don't care if you look bad. You're the one off the leash, the one whose manners are unpredictable. You're the dog who bit last Tuesday, and who settles down to meditate among strangers and woodchucks this afternoon. No danger means no story. It's a hard thing to keep coming back to, when so much in the world tells us that expectation is what keeps us safe from danger, rather than what causes it.
You walk into the room, and I see, friend. Something comes up, and I see here are my teeth, they are sharp, and then they go back in, among soft gums and tongue. This is no danger. This is, not always on guard, but not defenseless either. I learn the tornado kick: half-turn, right arm right leg circle, face the front wall, wind up the body by sinking to the ground, unwind, slap the leg, spin around, gather, two fists, punch and kick, wipe your nose, wind up again, drop your whole weight into the right, and on you go to the next sections of the dance. Catch and release. Violent and relaxed. There is no opponent, only this grid of beings learning to be heavy, to be slow, to be swift, to open themselves to the full potential of the body-mind-moment. How long are your arms? How long is your spine? That depends entirely on how much danger you are willing to let go of.
When I first started practicing tai chi, I came to the decrepit ranch house of a Chinese Shaolin master, just beyond the edge of a dying mall's parking lot. It was always dark in those shag-carpeted rooms, and no one said much. The Chinese master - short, round, in his sixties - didn't say much. His Western student - tall, lean, in his twenties - didn't say anything, but he taught me through the awareness and focus of his body. After years of sloppy rebellion, and then years of austere disembodiment, this man's body was the exact teacher I needed. Relaxed, but not slack. Alert, but not tense. Dignified, but not puffed-up. Week after week, I practiced with him in those ugly carpeted rooms. The only other student I remember from that time is a beautiful African-American woman, older than me and far sturdier. In silence, we parted the wild horse's mane. We dove down for the needle at the bottom of the sea. We grew weekly more assured in our relationship to danger by conjuring it up in silence, then dancing around it, giving it no place to stick. I was an MFA graduate student, producing work that refused to stay in the studio or the gallery, and these sessions were teaching me about how to walk in the world, with and without danger.
Then, the Western student who was my teacher left. He disappeared, and neither the master nor his wife had much to say about where he had gone. What they did tell me was that the master's wife was now my teacher. I hated the master's wife, her tiny weightless body, and what I read as her insistence that my movements be pretty and delicate. Pretty and delicate were the dangers of my youth. Step here, no, smaller. Don't walk like a Swiss soldier. Don't talk so loud. Don't be so complicated. I felt the master's wife was trying to teach me to be a kind of kung fu debutante, and that shit was not going to fly. The master called to ask me to train to be a teacher of tai chi, but all I could see was a kung fu debutante in dark-carpeted rooms, and so I left that school forever. My tai chi suit tore itself into shreds, and I thought no more about that way of moving.
Years later, on retreat, it came back. The weight and heft of it, the way of carving space and holding boundaries. My body was in a strange predicament: half-inhabited, subject to dangerous back pain, not yet resolved, at forty, whether to be in this world, or out of it. So the tai chi was a way of deciding to be in it, and to say how. This far, but no further. This open, and then retreat. I picked it all back up, and my body has been literally re-forming itself ever since. The whole shape of my spine is different, since I agreed to be in my feet, and to quit resisting the sinking of the hips toward earth. The whole shape of my mind is different, since I allowed my skull to find its connection with sky. I have agreed to the inconvenience and danger of knowing what I know. I have agreed to the integrity of being in this body. I lean to the right, elbow-strike, retreat to the left, gather, circle the arms, kick left, gather, kick right. Balance happens, or doesn't. I move on and on, in stillness.
No danger means no risk to some pre-existing notion of what is. I am going to work in a refugee camp in France. Yes, there are stories there: war stories, trauma-stories, resentment-stories. Fascist stories, jihadist stories, and stories of no longer giving a fuck. Of course. Why not? But there is also the name: La Grande Synthe, the great synthesis, the great saint. Why not? There are exactly enough miles in my Delta account, and exactly enough days in May, leaving on my birthday. There's an organization called Utopie 56, which will house me for five euros a night, somewhere, and there's work to be done.
Who's there? No danger.
What's to be done? No danger.
Will it be enough? No danger.
I am walking out into story-no-story, danger-no-danger.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.
108 Names of Now