Bill Douglas is the author of Complete Idiot’s Guide to T’ai Chi and QiGong and the founder of World T’ai Chi Day. We talked to him about mind-body arts, and how they are subtly shaping the world around us, from US prisoners finding inner calm to the role of meditation in the Occupy movement. Although unreported in the Western media, Douglas tells us that meditation also played a role in the Egyptian pro-democracy protests of 2011. He believes that T’ai Chi has the power to create a new, more peaceful world consciousness.
PoS: How did World T’ai Chi Day begin?
BD: I had just started teaching T’ai Chi in hospitals, and I had a lot of health professionals that were really stunned by the effects that they were getting from practicing it. I had a surgeon and a pharmacology professor from Missouri, for example, and they both had chronic hypertension, and their blood pressure dropped to normal within a few weeks.
But, I became increasingly frustrated because I was aware that T’ai Chi and QiGong [moving meditation] could help so many people with different health conditions, and that it could dramatically improve their lives if they knew about it. But the mainstream media just wasn’t reporting on these issues and on the research that was becoming available.
But, throughout my life, off and on, I had been a political organizer on issue politics like human rights and environmentalism. So I had some experience getting media attention for different causes. And I began considering how I could start getting the information out.
I decided to organize a mass T’ai Chi demonstration in front of the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum in Kansas City. We spent several months doing intensive organizing, reaching out to different T’ai Chi and QiGong schools, and sending press releases over and over again. We ended up getting about 200 people there. All the local media showed up. And it got picked up by CNN.
Then we started getting contacted by other groups in other cities. These were T’ai Chi practitioners, and they wanted to do it, too. They wanted to be part of it. At that point we [my wife and I] decided to call it World T’ai Chi Day, and that way anyone who wanted to, could be a part of it. The word spread, and we were contacted by more T’ai Chi practitioners. And this last year it was held in over 70 countries and on every continent, except for Antarctica.
PoS: In what year was the first World T’ai Chi Day held?
BD: The very first event, held in Kansas City, was in 1997, and so the first official World T’ai Chi Day was 1998.
PoS: And how did you get involved in T’ai Chi originally? What drew you to it?
BD: I grew up in a small town in Western Kansas, and went to the University of Kansas, where I met my wife. She’s from Hong-Kong originally, and she wanted to be closer to a Chinese community, and she suggested moving to California. That sounded pretty good to me, and so we packed up and moved there.
At first it was very exciting, but, over the years it started to wear on me… Someone told me that T’ai Chi was really good for stress, and so I looked around and I found that there was a class at a local community college, taught by a woman named Jennifer Booth – and she became my teacher… Years later we decided to move back to Kansas City.
PoS: Since T’ai Chi is about the transformation of consciousness in part, how do you see its practice globally affecting the world today, with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also recently in Libya?
BD: After 9/11, it’s like the world just went into such a state of fear on so many levels. It was as if global war was right on the horizon. And after seeing everything my father had gone through in World War II, I just couldn’t sit back and not try to avoid that [the traumatic effect of war] from happening to a lot of people around the world. And the thing I would see – when I would get videos and photos from people around the world that participated in this event – was people from all different religions, all different countries, all different ethnicities, and they all had that same look on their face. You know, when people are practicing mind-body arts they all have that look of calm.
For me it was very spiritual to see that. So I realized people could just see each other in a common way… because we were getting participants in Venezuela, Iraq, and Iran, Egypt, Russia: everywhere. I just got the feeling that this event could be more than a health event – which could save us a huge amount of money [in healthcare]. But, because of the times we were going through, I just began to realize that we could see each other as a common human family – and, seeing the T’ai Chi and QiGong community as a global human family, the motto became “One World, One Breath.”
PoS: What style of T’ai Chi do you practice?
BD: My wife and I practice the Guan Ping Yang style, which was created by Yang Lu-ch’an.
PoS: How do T’ai Chi and QiGong relate to each other and how are they different?
BD: They’re both among the many moving chi exercises, and they’re among the highest because they affect all parts of the body: the whole acupuncture system throughout the body, all the acupuncture points on the feet are stimulated, and so it’s a general toning of all those health systems. So I describe T’ai Chi as one of the highest forms of QiGong.
PoS: So, is the point of T’ai Chi to move the energy [Chi] around the body?
BD: T’ai Chi is really an art that can teach us to relax out of the way, so that the Chi can just radiate through us… The main focus with T’ai Chi and QiGong would be the upper, lower, and middle Dan Tien, which would be the equivalent to the Chakra in the center of the head, center of the heart, and – the Dan Tien that’s mostly referred to – about four inches below the navel.
PoS: I guess more emphasis is placed on the [upper-pelvic area] Dan Tien in T’ai Chi than in [Hindu] Kundalini meditation.
BD: Yes, all physical motions come from the Dan Tien. And, all great athletes move from it. That’s how you generate that physical power. All great athletes move from it, but they’re just people who move from it naturally.
PoS: As mentioned, you partly cultivated World T’ai Chi Day in response to wars in the Middle East and Asia. So what lessons can be drawn from T’ai Chi or Chinese philosophy in regard to that?
BD: The big lesson with Taoism and T’ai Chi is non-contention. The less you contend, the more powerful you become. The concept of Chi is that the world – life — is filled with good will, and that we draw good will to us when we don’t contend in the world. When someone comes forth and their greatest desire is good will in the world, it draws a lot of support, because the world wants to support good will… But [in regard to violence] there’s a paradox — which I find encouraging — because in the United States, for example, the crime rate has been going progressively down. And major research has shown that humanity today is less violent than in the whole history of humanity.
PoS: And did you speak to the people in Iraq and Iran, and places like that, doing World T’ai Chi Day?
BD: We’ve communicated via email. I made really good friends with a guy called Mohammed Essa in Egypt, who started the first World T’ai Chi Day event there, which has now spread to five Egyptian cities now participating. He was also actually part of the [pro-democracy] uprising. He sent me a clip of him being interviewed in the [Egyptian] national media… because he had read a lot of articles that I had written about how I think that meditation could have a profound impact on the evolution of the world on all levels…
One study found that if you can bring in a small percentage of high-level meditators you can actually have a positive impact on the larger society around. I had an experience with that. I was asked to do a T’ai Chi and meditation presentation at Folsom prison in California. So when I went there I thought I was going to be introducing them to these mind-body arts, but they had actually had a program going for about two years. And I spoke to a couple of organizers, Judith Trethway, a Tai Chi Chih teacher, and Jim, an inmate organizer of the program there who looked at the Folsom’s behavior rate statistics during the course of their Tai Chi Chih program, and had found that not only had the behavior of the inmates in the T’ai Chi program improved, but so had the behavioral rates of the entire prison improved
I had been writing for a long time about how it would only take a small percentage of the world’s population to become avid practitioners of meditative arts to have a big impact on the world. So, after the uprising, Mohammed Essa was interviewed on Egyptian TV, and he talked about that. And he said that there were a lot of meditators in Egypt, because the population is a very young, highly educated population. And so there’s a lot of meditators there. And he said he thought that might have played a role in the way that the uprising evolved, and how non-violent and resourceful it was.
PoS: So, do you have any thoughts about Occupy Wall Street? Because they were also doing a lot of meditation and yoga.
BD: We were contacted by a T’ai Chi teacher who was going to give free lessons to the Occupy movement in his city…
I was really stunned when I saw on the news how the police had pepper sprayed some students [during an Occupy protest]… it was really very brutal. So in our World T’ai Chi Day newsletters — I didn’t take a position on it because World T’ai Chi and QiGong Day is not a political organization – but what I did suggest was that we follow that one T’ai Chi teacher’s lead, and that we all go down and offer free T’ai Chi and QiGong lessons to the Occupy people, because, no matter which side of the fence you stand on, on this issue it’s in all of our best interest for it to be non-violent. Because the [people in the Occupation movement] needed tools to be able to stand steady and stand calm.
You can find out more about Bill Douglas and practicing T’ai Chi at the websites below.
World T’ai Chi Day official website.
Excerpts of Bill Douglas’s acceptance speech when receiving his Induction to the Internal Arts Hall of Fame in New York in 2009
2012: The Awakening, a novel by Bill Douglas.
Complete Idiot’s Guide to T’ai Chi and QiGong