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Maintaining calm in the eye of the storm

Jun 12, 2008 Maintaining calm in the eye of the storm

Some people seek calm by avoiding conflict. I seek to use calm to harmonize conflict to the advantage of me and my client. By applying the principles of t’ai chi to my law practice, I do my best neither to chase an opponent’s power nor to hide from it, but to use my opponent’s power and energy to the best of my advantage, by doing my best to anticipate the opponent’s strategy and attack, to give the opponent nothing to push against, to find the opponent’s weaknesses, and to neutralize the opponent.

Related to this approach of neither chasing nor hiding from an opponent, t’ai chi master Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo (pictured here, second from the top) once said: “Normally we think that if [our opponent] has 100 pounds of force or power, I better have 150. But then if I get 150 pounds of force, he may have accumulated more himself. Or there’ll be somebody else with more. So next time it will be my 150 against his 200. Then I’ll need to go to 250… and still, there’s always going to be somebody with more than me. So I need to reverse my approach. I need to take my own power down to 0. Then there’s no chasing or spiraling. Nothing can change. If he has 100, I have 0. If he has 150, I have 0. If he has 200, I still have 0, on and on, whatever he has, I’m always beneath it, it doesn’t change or affect me. I’m not chasing his attributes, or competing, or catching up, or exceeding him. That’s Taijiquan.”

A student of Sun Tzu reaches the same destination by taking the following path: “Sun Tzu’s ideal military leader is calm in the midst of chaos, being able to even appear chaotic to deceive his enemy. The ultimate skill is separating oneself from the stresses of everyday life. Thus, a strong leader’s response does not correlate and follow with the stimulus, which in effect, is quite impressive to his or her people and to the competition. With this ability, one can think clearly without influences corrupting the process in bringing about the best solution. He or she has inner peace in a world of perpetual turbulence. How many times do you find yourself so wrapped up in present worries, you can’t seem to think clearly, and that the decision was made based primarily from the tension?”

Fortunately, like myself, plenty of other lawyers seek calmness not out of any new age, bead-wearing philosophy of life, but out of a realization that this is the only sensible path, and is a necessary path. In Washington, DC, on a regular basis a contemplative law group meets. Similar gatherings take place in other parts of the nation, as well.

One lawyer who has inspired me with his holistic approach to law practice is Michael Dolich. He is a fellow attendee of the Trial Lawyers College, and I became intrigued to follow his spiritual travels on the TLC’s listserv, and to talk with him about his approach to life. Ultimately, Michael left the law and found a way to incorporate his holistic approach to his new path of baking professionally. As Michael tells it, “You might not know I used to be a trial lawyer; 10 years I was in the courtroom. I still shake inside a bit when I say ‘used to be’ before that word ‘lawyer;’ but I am much more comfortable with that concept now. I liked the law practice with its constant intellectual feeding and occasional intense courtroom dramas which always moved me beyond my comfort zone and challenged me. But something always seemed missing; and for many years I didn’t understand what it was. Now I understand that I need to work with my hands and on my feet; at least part of my working time.” For me, I use my hands and feet literally when practicing t’ai chi every day, and figuratively, by incorporating the t’ai chi principles and practices involved in pushing hands, protective kicking, and sparring, into my law practice.

Describing the teacher of the teacher of my two t’ai chi teachers, an Australian teacher says: “As one famous taiji teacher (Cheng Man-ching) once put it, drawing on the Taoist image of the soft overcoming the hard, water and air are amongst the softest of Nature’s elements, yet massed wind (cyclone) or water (tidal wave) can overcome the hardest thing! The taiji practitioner if properly trained is able to harness or access realms of psychophysical energy (qi) unavailable through mere muscular exertion. Another leading taiji exponent (Bruce Kamir Francis) once compared the power capable of being generated by the internal versus the external arts to that of the atomic energy of Quantum physics that results from splitting the atom, as compared to Newtonian, mechanical energy.”

Robert W. Smith — who studied with Cheng Man-ching, and who taught my two t’ai chi teachers — talked of Professor Cheng being the softest of the soft who directed his chi through the concrete, to make pushing the Professor little different than pushing concrete, that is, if a person were able to find anything to push in the first place when sparring with Professor Cheng, rather than feeling no differently than pushing a ghost.

Some people do sitting meditation to achieve calm. I prefer the meditation involved in the internal martial art movements of t’ai chi. As Cheng Man-ching once said, doing yoga might relax a person, but it is t’ai chi that makes a person ready to neutralize the opponent at any time, and it helps me be calm in the eye of the storm. Jon Katz.

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