Embracing the Suck

Last year I learned how to embrace my own suck and make peace with being profoundly terrible at something. My journey to a blue sash in Tai Chi was nothing less than a battle of will against my own feelings of worthlessness and my reflexive desire to give up on things that don’t come easily to me. Spoiler alert: turns out sucking is a huge opportunity for personal growth.

I’d started taking Tai Chi classes in 2021 at school run by a husband and wife duo. Masters Joe and Sheryl Schaefer are black belts and they, along with their team of accomplished teachers, offer both Kung Fu and Tai Chi lessons. I quickly earned a white sash and then a yellow sash in Tai Chi, so when it was time to start on the next set of postures toward earning my blue sash I had no reason to believe I wouldn’t be able to do it easily.

Something strange happened, though. Almost immediately after I started this next section I found myself falling behind in class. Weeks passed and I watched classmates who’d started at the same time I had earn their blue sashes and move on. I found myself struggling to remember the postures and getting confused, even regressing at times. At first I made light of it, but as weeks went by and my extremely slow progress began to be noticeable by everyone else, I became embarrassed. I started to question whether there was actually something wrong with me. Why was this so hard?

I thought about quitting. I looked for a good excuse but there was none to be found. I had committed to learning Tai Chi, and to showing up for my teachers and classmates. Besides, even with the challenges, it’s one of the few times each week I get out of the house, away from my devices, and focus on my physical self. I enjoy going, and I enjoy the people I’ve met there. I didn’t want to quit, it’s just… I didn’t want to suck.

I’ve spent most of my life ‘up in my head' and not really living in the moment; staring off into space, daydreaming or distracting myself with books, television and social media. I accumulate bruises that I cannot remember inflicting on myself. As a kid, my teachers were always calling me back from my imaginary worlds, scolding me for not paying attention. Recently, however, I’ve started to feel that getting to know my own body is important for my own wellbeing, now and in the future. Tai Chi is a gentle but powerful way to do this.

I’ve been at it for a year and a half now, and I still feel like a toddler when I go to class, struggling to control how I move. The coarse, red practice mats under the soft soles of my feet remind me to pay attention to all the points where they make contact. I consciously, painstakingly try to attune myself to the mechanics of my own body, and in turn, my own life as I go through the slow movements that require balance and breath.

Perhaps the most surprising thing I’ve discovered during my time with Tai Chi is the importance (and also, my own lifelong lack) of balance. Balance is often mistaken for stillness, but that’s not what it is. Even my Zen meditation looks like someone sitting perfectly still. But there is no ‘set it and forget it’ in Tai Chi or Zazen. It is about maintaining an alert consciousness and being responsive to the external forces around you so that you can hold a posture. This looks like stillness (or extreme slowness), but in reality, it’s done through a million subtle micro-adjustments your body makes to keep you in the proper posture. Thousands of years of meditative and martial arts practices from around the world have taught us that without balance, there can be no peace – internally or externally. Peace, then, cannot exist in the world without a finely tuned, constant, disciplined control of the self – including mind and body.

Being present in my body is, I’ve found, one of my greatest challenges. What’s even more challenging, though, is keeping that body presence when I’m under duress. For me, there’s not a whole lot more terrifying than visibly sucking at something. The self-consciousness and self-loathing that have plagued me for my entire life burned painfully as I showed up week after week, making the teeniest, tiniest steps toward a goal that other people seem to have achieved with minimal effort.

Had my teachers acted disparagingly toward my slow pace, compared me to any other student, or scolded me I would have had a good reason to slink away quietly and feel sorry for myself. Instead, Masters Sheryl and Joe – and Master Lesa, Master Ben, and many others who helped me over the months – just smiled kindly after each lesson, patted me on the back and told me to keep going. So I did.

I went to class one night right before Thanksgiving feeling oddly confident. I’d been practicing daily at home because I knew my teachers were going to want to test me soon. That night, Master Sheryl pulled me aside and asked about my progress. I told her I was *this* close to having the whole thing down: the full set of postures and movements, with sword in hand. She asked to see, so I did the whole thing in front of her. When I was done she said, “Well, you’ve done it. Congratulations!” I didn’t even realize I was being tested!

At the end of class, Master Joe usually calls everyone together for a final bow. Before he did that, though, he and Master Sheryl presented me with a blue sash and a certificate in front of the class to signify I’d made it to the next level. I felt my eyes burning as I looked around the room – it was right before the holiday and the place was packed. I saw teachers and students who had been with me on this journey, dressed in their black Tai Chi uniforms with different colored sashes, smiling and cheering. Their genuine joy and happiness at seeing someone else reach a milestone was, in a word, awesome. At that moment, I didn’t feel like I sucked at all. In fact, I felt like I’d accomplished something truly great. Because I had.

The accomplishments of martial arts aren’t just about mastering forms or increasing physical skill. They’re about working with your ego, learning to control your emotions, building tolerance and conditioning yourself to meet the challenges of life with wisdom and grace. By not giving up, embracing my suck, and continuing with my Tai Chi despite feeling like I wasn’t worthy, I had learned something more valuable than how to wield a sword. While these lessons are certainly bigger than a strip of blue satin could ever symbolize, my goodness, I do enjoy wearing it anyway.

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