T'ai-Chi IV -- Meng, Youthful Folly

By Robert Larsen


...the image of inexperienced youth…danger at the foot of a mountain…Danger and standstill...Youthful Folly means confusion and subsequent enlightenment.


These first images announce themes like the early chords of a symphony.  The natural events that proceed from image to image illustrate laws of being and the stages of becoming that effect them.  Here the undeveloped time of youth is portrayed by the central placing of a spiny, awkward cactus struggling low in the foreground.  Its small delicate arms reach upward.  Stones at its base suggest the solid foundation from which it grows.  This early struggling into form after birth is contrasted with the calm patience of an ancient mountain in the background. (Miller, 1976)


A spring rising at the foot of a mountain is the image of inexperienced youth.  Keeping still is the attribute of the upper mountain; that of the lower water is the abyss, danger.  "Stopping in perplexity on the brink of a dangerous abyss is a symbol of the folly of youth.  However, the two images also show the way of overcoming the follies of youth.  Water is something that of necessity flows on.  When the spring gushes forth, it does not know at first where it will go.  But its steady flow fills up the deep place blocking its progress, and success is attained.... In the same way character is developed by thoroughness that skips nothing but, like water, gradually and steadily fills up all gaps and so flows onward." (Wilhem, 1972)


Like the "first chords of a symphony which announce the themes", these first images tell of the influences which continue to sound their importance throughout our practice.  These images are an attempt to render the emotional tendencies which occur in reaction to change.  When they reverberate for the first time as you enter your practice, they are stated all the stronger by their initial emphasis.  As one continues to practice one must keep in mind their underlying thematic recurrence.  The emotional reaction of "Folly of Youth", which tends to make one stop on the brink of anything newly encountered, continues underneath.  Its influence may be felt as part of every new experience one encounters.  The "Folly of Youth" is not something to conquer, master, and then move on, the victor.  The child who is frightened by feeling inadequate is one to take by the hand and continually remind of the calm ancient mountain in the background.  Trust in the "teacher" and create a place for that awkward, thorny, "cactusy" feeling in your practice.


Develop the slow, steady, and diligent practice that is necessary to stay with the "abyss" so as not to leave the little one behind.  Be patient and gentle with yourself.  Use your practice to learn the value of going slow enough; so like water, you may fill the low places and skip nothing.  Only then may you truly flow on, hand in hand, connected with your roots.  Nothing may be skipped or you will have to go back again and again.  The folly of youth would have us master self and world so they may be put in a pocket to be spent like an allowance.   


The educated child learns very early that expertise is rewarded and not knowing "the answer" may often be punished.  This child is frightened something may be wrong with him for not knowing what it seems everyone else takes for granted.  Soon learning becomes a task done for others.  This child naturally learns to fake it. Now he or she begins to skip over what is not known to replace it with what is displayable.  Here the expert, the one who "knows", is concocted.  In this mode the interaction of self and world turn to a question of display.  The seeking of knowledge converts from an attempt to be in touch to,  "Can I get away with it?" The sense of what matters inherent in depth and real nourishment is lacking so the world and self become thin and brittle.    


In the gap left by that which has been skipped, the folly of youth seeks to impress.  Wherever knowledge is least the youth must seek "to affect by transmitting a force or motion".  I am sure you have all been witness to the "scene" where teenagers anguish over their attempt to impress each other.  The pressure to have an affect where knowing the least exists for all young people.  If only we could somehow tell them in the midst of their terrible torment to just slow down, it is only experience that is lacking.  The gaps they feel will fill themselves in time.  There is nothing they need, or even can, do.


By sinking into body's dream (one's karma) through practice of Tai-Chi, one begins to touch the palpable presence of what has been skipped over or repressed.  Now the evoked "folly of youth" presses one to get it right immediately or run away.  If you stay with it, you may begin to feel like your being seen through.  This can seem like a Grand Canyon opening under the teenager's feet.  Out of habit he grasps at airy display to hang on and cover the embarrassment.  The teenager is compelled to answer the "judge" with the "expert" to show how good he is.  Where this defensive attempt fails, he will tend to hold back, tighten, or shy away.  It is precisely where life is bubbling up that the teenager feels most awkward and thorny.  Display must be seen through if what matters is ever to provide the nourishment soul needs.   


Our western society has taught us to mistrust the earth and left us walking a precariously strung high wire.  One quickly learns to steel oneself and not to look down.  We must look straight ahead and keep our goals in sight lest we dizzy ourselves by the height of our own remove.  Never may we question our stance, and rooting does not even occur as a possibility.  Tight balance is of supreme importance as we try to hold ourselves up by our own shoulders.  It is frightening and painful.  Press your fingers into the muscles along the top of your body between the neck and shoulders.  What do you feel?


Is it any wonder that when something starts bubbling up from underneath that you may feel some fear?   It is the folly of youth that freezes, panics, or runs at this point.  The young one feels so little, awkward, and spiney.  It is merely a lack of experience with the ground.


I want to talk to the little awkward spiney one in you for a moment.  Let the expert take a break so that some experience has a chance of getting in.  Receiving another, be it person or thing, is not possible without a willingness to invest in loss.  The expert has a very difficult time with this.  He is such a teenager; always has to look good.  To find this little "cactus" in you, look where you feel a sense of lostness in the immensity of it all, where you feel awkward and ill at ease, where you may feel "everybody" knows something you somehow missed.


I want to remind this little one of the ancient calm mountain in the background.  Indians say, "everything you need to know is always present, all you need to know is how to listen."  Here it is again, invest in loss; let it in.  Let what in?  Today we are bombarded with advice from all quarters.  Billboards, magazines, television, counselors, parents, teachers (Tai-Chi teachers too), the list is endless, all vie for our attention.  To speak with your little one, I wish to share with you a bedtime talk I had with my daughter.


Like all children it is hard for her to go to bed while it is still light and others are up.  She naturally rebels at the idea.  She fights her own body signals because she has not learned to value them yet.  Children are Unicorns, all innocent flashing and dashing.  There is no limit to possibility for the Unicorn, which is as it should be, yet the little girl needs to go to bed.  I can enforce this from the outside and "lay down the law", or I can attempt to gift her with her own power of knowing.  This is a "father gift".  As with all father gifts, this one has to do with limits.  If there were only one thing I could give her as a guide to help her into the world it would be that she receive this gift.  The conversation went something like this: 


To get her attention I said, "'This is important, this is training.  What are you feeling in your body?'  Answer, "Nothing!  I can't go to sleep!  I am not tired!'  (She aggressively rolls back and forth throwing herself about.)  'You don't feel anything?'  'No!'  'Well then, you have to learn to listen to your body. 


You know the stomach ache that happens when you don't listen to when you are full.  Do you remember? You needed to learn that connection.  You need that pain to tell you when to stop eating.  There is nothing wrong with you just because you feel pain.  It is a message you need, trying to get through.  It can be the best friend you have.  You need to learn to listen with your body and to give it some credit.  It is full of magic!  It will tell you not only when to stop eating so you will not get sick, but to sleep when it is tired.  Your body is full of little spirits that keep watch for you.  They will help you to know everything you need to know, you just need to learn how to listen.  If you do, you will always have the most valuable gifts in the world; your health, good friends, and a constant sense of being loved and able to love back without having to depend on me or anyone else.  This is the most important thing I can teach you.  It is a secret teaching of the most ancient wisdom there is." 


"The light of God surrounds you.  The love of God enfolds you.  The presence of God watches over you.  The power of God protects you.  Wherever you are, God is.'"


"You can feel it right now if you just give yourself a chance.  Check it out.  What do you feel in your body?  Is there anyplace that feels good just to be lying down?  What do you feel there?  Is there another place perhaps?  What do you feel there?  Let it spread and listen to what you feel.  Can you feel the light?  The warmth, the melting tingle?  Wherever you are, God is.  Good night my little one.  Good night."


"The spirit of low places does not die.

Call its mysteriousness feminine.

The gate of this mysteriousness

Is the source of heaven-and-earth.

Unceasingly, unceasingly, it seems to persist.

Use it and it won't wear out."


Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching




Terry Miller, Ed. with commentaries by Hale Thatcher, Images of Change; Paintings on the I Ching, (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1976). p. 8.


Richard Wilhelm, trans. by Cary F Baynes, The I Ching or Book of Changes, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972), p. 20.


Lao Tzu, trans. and commentary by Herrymon Maurer, Tao Teh Ching/The Way of Ways/TAO, (Princeton, New Jersey: Fellowship in Prayer, 1982), p. 47.