By HOLLY SWEENEY-HILLMAN
May 2014, Academic Program Director
Author Arthur Rosenfeld will be speaking at the 2014 International Tai Chi Chuan Symposium as well as doing a book reading from his latest novel, YIN, a love story about the life of Lao Tsu. Arthur’s non-fiction book, Tai Chi – The Perfect Exercise, will also be featured at the Symposium. Tai Chi – The Perfect Exercise, was published in 2013 and has become a must-have book for Tai Chi enthusiasts and martial artists.
Holly: You have studied at many distinguished institutions in the United States and abroad. Which one, or ones, have inspired you the most to become the person you are?
Arthur: Institutions themselves don’t inspire me. I have, however, been inspired by certain individuals, and most of all by great ideas and, of course, relationships. I’ve had wonderful teachers going back to my early school years. Often, they led me to a Taoist worldview without ever knowing they were doing so. They were, for the most part, monistic, non-dual teachers, who saw everything as being united, and wept bitter tears for the destruction of the oceans and rainforest and other environmental cataclysms, that even back then, were the beginning of what we now call the 6th great extinction, a disaster of truly geologic proportions that our species has caused.
So, while I did have a handful of writing teachers who helped me better understand world literature and hone my craft (I’m the author now of 17 books), it was a group of biology professors who really most meaningfully shaped my understanding of natural forces and the cycles and nuances of life. Famous field researchers, evolutionary biologists, anatomists, and even a vertebrate paleontologist who forever changed the way we look at dinosaurs, they helped me come to see evolution and the Tao as nearly synonymous.
In the end, though, my admittedly limited understanding of Taoism, indeed my physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual experience of the philosophy, has almost entirely catalyzed by stupendous good fortune at having as teachers true Taoist Tai Chi masters, my primary teacher in particular. I am most interested in tai chi because it is the physical embodiment of Taoist philosophy. I am at least as much of a philosopher as a fighter (laugh). As much as I rejoice in the physical practice of the art, I rejoice even more in the Taoist way of looking at things.
“Arthur Rosenfeld is one of the most special and genuine voices in the arts today. Not persuaded by fame, attention or self-congratulatory actions; he walks a path that is unique, winding and full of discoveries, surprises and truth, not just for himself but for those lucky enough to align themselves with him.”
Martial Artist, Producer, Writer, and Director
Holly: You credit your teachers with giving you a great deal. As a teacher, what do you passionately hope to give your students?
Arthur: First, I hope that they will all become much better at the physical art of tai chi than I am. Second, I hope they will help others strengthen their health through the art. Third, I hope they will preserve the sublime details of the most rigorous, authentic practice so those details are not diluted and lost. Last, I hope that they will energetically inject Taoist ideas into the world.
Holly: How would you explain the relationship between tai chi and Taoism to someone who didn’t know very much about Tai Chi or Taoism?
Arthur: This is a large topic and one I plan to explore in my presentations at the Symposium. For now, let’s just say that without Taoism there is no tai chi. Taoism is a philosophy/religion and the question of whether it is one or the other, or both, is beyond the scope of this brief interview. There is, however, nowhere (to the best of my knowledge) a system of movement that more perfectly and accurately embodies a system of ideas than traditional, authentic tai chi embodies Taoist thought.
“I have studied tai chi and qigong for thirty years, and found that all the most profound things I’d learned about these mind-body arts were not only represented in Arthur Rosenfeld’s book Tai Chi – The Perfect Exercise, but profoundly articulated in a way that will benefit any teacher of any style …Thank you Arthur for this gift to tai chi and qigong and to the world.”
Founder of World Tai Chi & QiGong Day
Holly: You have produced a television program about tai chi and you just came out with a book in 2013, Tai Chi – The Perfect Exercise. You are working so diligently to bring Tai Chi to the world. What is your motivation?
Arthur: Since I was a little boy I have felt the pain of the world so keenly that at times it has been more than I can stand. Injustice, cruelty, environmental devastation, deception, self-absorption, short-term thinking— all these run rife across our planet these days. Indeed, the human race behaves much like a cancer. I truly see a solution in Taoist philosophy. I really believe that if we adopt a Taoist approach to conservation, economics, spirituality, interpersonal relationships, exercise, health, and more, we can ensure our own survival along with the survival of other sentient beings on Planet Earth. I figure if I’m going to devote a career to an objective, then it should be the biggest and most important one I can find, and this is it. I don’t want to spend whatever energy and time I have on anything less.
Why do I find Taoist methods so compelling? Because they work! Tai chi is ample proof of that. Taoist tai chi masters of yore spent their time observing nature and cultivating natural forces and trends. In doing so, they developed a penetrating intelligence and sensitivity to the way the world works. In contrast to modern science, which seeks to understand the world by using advanced technology to take things apart, those old masters put things together in order to understand them, a approach increasingly popular in the most cutting edge scientific disciplines we have today, such as quantum mechanics and system theory.
When it comes to the physical practice of tai chi, it’s pretty obvious to all of those who practice the art, (and also documented by hundreds of studies) that tai chi helps us bolster our immune systems and beat back stress. At a time when we are crammed together in heretofore unheard of ways and pushed to our physical and psychological limits by our modern lifestyle, such stress reduction is critical. Stress, or more precisely the stress response, is the biggest single reason people visit a doctor’s office or wind up in the hospital.
“Rosenfeld’s Tai Chi is as unique a contribution to the martial art as Bruce Lee’s Tao of Jeet Kune Do was to his. This muscular work weaves history and modernity with philosophy and combat to create a tapestry that transcends all disciplines.”
Author of Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet
Holly: I want to revisit something you said earlier about the thinking of people who lived in ancient times. You said: “They put things together rather than took them apart to understand them.” I think this is a wonderful phrase. Would you care to say more about this?
Arthur: I’m not a Luddite. I’m not anti-technology, nor am I advocating a return to the Warring States period in China (laugh). Rather, I believe that the world needs a harmonious balance between ancient Taoist and modern scientific approaches. Only by blending the old and the new, by combining inquiry into the subtle nature of things along with investigation into how everything works together can we finally come to understand that energy and matter are a continuum, that we are all inextricably connected, that the future of one living thing is the future of all living things, and that the world is here for us to nurture, not destroy. I am working to develop a community of people who want to evolve their thinking and behavior in this direction, and thereby shift their behavior and ultimately repair the world.